Biden Made Big Deal About Nuking Filibuster, But Here's Why His Tuesday Speech Is All Bluster -- For Now


On Tuesday, President Joe Biden could have taken to the stage in Atlanta, Georgia, and proposed a spending bill which offered every American a free pony.

Or maybe he could have supported legislation giving us all two scoops of our favorite ice cream, just like he’s known to get. (He likes chocolate-chocolate chip, you know.) He could have announced a proposed law giving us six weeks of paid vacation every year. He could have lent his support to adding Pee Wee Herman to Mount Rushmore or resurrecting Pan Am as the national airline.

He didn’t. He proposed something more modest but just as achievable: nuking the filibuster to ram the Democrats’ federal voting reform legislation through.

This legislation, in and of itself, is already an outrage, nothing more than a blatant power-grab to tilt elections the Democrats’ way. (Something we’ve been chronicling since the beginning here at The Western Journal, it’s worth noting — even as mainstream media openly lies and says the bills are designed to protect the right to vote, which is somehow under threat from treacherous Republicans. We’re going to keep on standing up for the truth, and you can help us bring it to America by subscribing.)

“I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote,” Biden said during the speech.

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“Let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”

This was covered breathlessly by the media. CNN: “How Biden heaped shame on the Senate in thundering speech.” NBC News: “Biden’s tough talk hints at re-election effort.” MSNBC: “Biden’s putting the pressure of history on Manchin and Sinema.”

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That last headline, interestingly, gets at part of the reason why Biden’s speech on Tuesday — which was nowhere near as momentous, resounding or cutting as certain media made it out to be, at least to these ears — was as consequential as promising us ponies or Pan Am.

“The pressure of history” — those happen to be the words of well-embalmed MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell, to be fair — hasn’t publicly moved Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the two notable holdouts for invoking the nuclear option in the Democratic caucus. Not only that, Manchin came out before Biden’s speech to make it clear changing the filibuster wasn’t on the table.

“We need some good rules changes to make the place work better. But getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday, according to The Hill.

A quick recap of the problem here, for those of you with Common Core civics educations: Changing the filibuster, a Senate rule which requires a 60-vote supermajority, requires changing the rules via a majority vote. This is known as the “nuclear option” — not only ditching the usual two-thirds majority needed to change rules during a Senate session but also ignoring the filibuster and passing legislation or confirming nominees by a simple majority.

Politicians are loath to resort to the nuclear option for a number of reasons. Firstly, the supermajority has historically functioned as a speed-bump for overtly partisan legislation that may be poorly constructed or injurious. Then there’s the golden rule of politics: Do unto others as they do unto you. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid learned this the hard way in 2013 when he invoked the nuclear option on judicial confirmations after Republicans blocked some of then-President Barack Obama’s nominees.

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Not only did this backfire when Republicans took control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, but the lack of a filibuster on judicial nominees also allowed former President Donald Trump to swiftly reshape the federal judiciary when he was elected in 2016.

Democratic leadership — now including President Biden — has decided none of this will come back to bite them in the future and has demanded a carve-out to use the nuclear option on “voting rights” legislation in order to ram the voting reform bills through via a simple, party-line vote. However, the Senate is divided 50-50 among Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie vote — which means all 50 Democratic senators have to be on board to invoke the nuclear option.

Both Manchin and Sinema have been vocal holdouts. Whether it’s because they believe the nuclear option is a Pandora’s box or because they’re both Democrats in red states and want to continue getting elected — or a bit of both — they haven’t budged. On Tuesday, Manchin not only insisted he still wasn’t budging, but he explained that any Senate rules change must be done by a 67-vote supermajority — which is what’s needed to change the rules outside of using the nuclear option.

“We need some good rules changes. We can do that together. But you change the rules with two-thirds of the people that are present so … Democrats, Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better. Getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” Manchin said, The Hill reported.

“I’m looking at everything I can to make this place work. …But to break the opportunity for the minority to particulate completely, that’s just not who we are.”

Manchin made this clear last week, too: “Being open to a rules change that would create a nuclear option, it’s very, very difficult. It’s a heavy lift,” he said, rejecting the idea of a carve-out for “voting rights” because it was a slippery slope.

“Anytime there’s a carve-out, you eat the whole turkey. There’s nothing left,” he told reporters.

While Sinema hasn’t been as open about her opposition to the nuclear option, Axios reported last week the Arizona senator “reiterated during [a] Democratic lunch she will not support any effort to get rid of the 60-vote threshold, according to two sources familiar with the call.”

There’s an even bigger problem than the fact Biden and the Democrats will have to move two hard “no” votes on the nuclear option, however: As Politico noted in a report on Monday, they don’t have 48 hard “yes” votes at the ready, either.

On Monday, Sen. Mark Kelly — Sinema’s fellow Arizonan — said he was undecided on the matter. “I’ve never been part of an organization where it’s really, really hard to do things. So if there’s a real proposal, I’ll take a look at it and evaluate it based on what’s in the best interests of the country,” he said, adding the Democrats’ proposals have changed “almost weekly.”

“For a caucus that prides itself on unity, there’s plenty of nuance in Democrats’ views,” Politico reported. “Some, like Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) like a talking filibuster but are ‘not crazy’ about making an exception for voting rights. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) says reform is needed but is promoting more modest changes. She cites the near-impossible odds the party faces in getting all 50 Democrats on board for changing the filibuster unilaterally, also known as the ‘nuclear option.'”

And again, Manchin made it clear that despite the pressure, he wasn’t budging.

“This is a tough game. And I understand they have a tough job to do. I think [Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer] has tried to be as fair as he could be this whole year. We did some great things, now they’re coming down to crunch time. And I understand the position they’re in and what they’re doing,” Manchin said Monday. “But I’ve been very clear where I am. So hopefully they respect that too.”

They may not respect that, but it remains a fact and, absent scoring a Republican vote — that makes the prospect of converting Manchin look easy — that leaves them stuck at 49 no matter how thunderously the weight of history is applied by the White House and the Democrats.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this blitz is just what’s needed to cow Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. It hasn’t worked before, however, and this is little different than playing the same song at a higher volume and hoping they suddenly like it. And that’s assuming they just have to worry about those two votes. They don’t.

Thus, instead of imbuing Biden’s speech with Lawrence O’Donnell’s “pressure of history” poppycock, we might be better off describing the bluster we witnessed from the president on Tuesday by falling back on Shakespeare: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Given the events of the last week in general — and Tuesday in particular — it looks every bit like the White House would have better luck trying to sell us that free pony legislation. “Build Back Bridle” has a catchy ring to it, after all.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture