Sen. Joe Biden, an ardent defender of the filibuster, has turned into President Joe Biden, who’s willing to end the filibuster.
During his first solo news conference as president on Thursday, Biden didn’t face a single question about COVID-19. He did face plenty of questions about the filibuster, however, and whether he was willing to move to end it in order to jam through his agenda — which wouldn’t be remotely passable without the so-called nuclear option, which would eliminate the filibuster and the 60-vote supermajority needed to pass legislation through the upper chamber.
When the question was first broached, Biden seemed to indicate he would favor a return to the so-called talking filibuster, which requires senators to keep holding the floor in objection to legislation in order to delay a vote.
“With regard to the filibuster, I believe we should go back to a position of the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago,” Biden said.
“And that is that it used to be required for the filibuster — and I had a card on this. I was going to give you the statistics. … It used to be that from, between 1917 and 1971, the filibuster existed, there were a total of 58 motions to break the filibuster that whole time. Last year alone, there were five times that many. So it’s being abused in a gigantic way,” he said.
“And for example, it used to be, you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing.”
Aside from the Bidenesque dad humor of the “120 years” since he was in the Senate (with Biden, at least, you think he was kidding) and the fact no one dramatically collapsed on the floor during a filibuster except in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” this wasn’t necessarily a revelation. He’d told ABC News roughly the same thing last week in an interview.
He said he was willing to go further than that later in the news conference, however.
“I’m going to say something outrageous: I’ve never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the United States Senate. So the best way to get something done, if you, if you hold near and dear to you that you, uh, like to be able to,” the president said, before appearing to have a system freeze.
This is the exact moment when Biden knew having a press conference was a mistake.
Shame of the people who put a man in clear mental decline in this office pic.twitter.com/dElpVyUkgn
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) March 25, 2021
“Anyway, we’re ready to get a lot done,” he said, after a reboot. “And if we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
There was another system freeze later when he was asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins whether he agreed with former President Barack Obama’s statement that “the filibuster was a relic of the Jim Crow era.”
“Yes,” Biden said, without hesitation.
“And if not, why not abolish it if it’s a relic of the Jim Crow era?” the reporter responded.
System freeze again. Then: “Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first. It’s been abused from the time it came into being by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.”
In short, if Republicans still don’t want to play nice after the talking filibuster is put into place and decide to “abuse” it, well then, we’ll just have to nuke the whole thing.
The talking filibuster comes with its own problems, mind you. The reason it was eliminated was that it basically grinds the Senate to a halt; the longest of these was 57 days for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It doesn’t just have to be one person holding the floor until they collapse, either; there was no one reading phone books to kill time for 57 days back then, either.
By the way, when Biden was a senator from Delaware, he was more than happy to abuse the filibuster, as he likes to say.
In a 2010 piece for U.S. News and World Report, Peter Roff wrote, “During his years in the Senate, Biden could be counted on to routinely join Democratic efforts to support filibusters of Republican programs — from the second President Bush’s energy bill to the first President Bush’s effort to cut the tax on capital gains in order to stimulate the U.S. economy and blunt the impact of the early-’90s recession.”
In 2005, when Senate Democrats were using the filibuster to clog up then-President George W. Bush’s agenda, Biden passionately defended the filibuster.
“At its core, the filibuster is not about stopping a nominee or a bill, it’s about compromise and moderation,” he said.
“The nuclear option extinguishes the power of independents and moderates in the Senate. That’s it, they’re done. Moderates are important if you need to get to 60 votes to satisfy cloture; they are much less so if you only need 50 votes.
“Let’s set the historical record straight. Never has the Senate provided for a certainty that 51 votes could put someone on the bench or pass legislation.”
Five years later, when he was vice president and the Republicans were using the filibuster to stop Obama’s agenda, he thought the filibuster was way out of hand.
“I’ve never seen, as my uncle once said, the Constitution stood on its head as they’ve done. This is the first time every single solitary decision has required 60 senators,” Biden said.
“No democracy has survived needing a supermajority,” he continued, adding the filibuster was “a dangerous new roadblock in the way of American government.”
In short: The filibuster is useful when Democrats wield it, but a dangerous impediment when it’s Republicans “abusing” it.
Not that we shouldn’t have expected this. On Wednesday, Axios reported Biden had met with historians at the White House and talked about “how big is too big — and how fast is too fast — to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America.”
“The historians’ views were very much in sync with his own: It is time to go even bigger and faster than anyone expected,” Axios reported. “If that means chucking the filibuster and bipartisanship, so be it.”
Nebraska GOP Sen. Ben Sasse summed it up neatly in a statement: “Senator Biden was a relentless defender of the filibuster, but now that President Biden looks in the mirror and sees FDR, he’s keeping the door open for a complete 180 to blow up the institution he spent four decades defending,” he said, according to NBC News.
Obviously, this depends on Biden convincing several members of his own party who have announced their opposition to removing the filibuster, most notably Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
If he can do it, however, the biggest takeaway from Thursday’s media briefing is that President System Freeze intends to remake America on a 50-vote tiebreaker majority.
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