President Joe Biden’s decision to call for changing the Senate’s rules to pass voting rights protections was a long time coming. Perhaps — in the view of his most disaffected supporters — too long.
A self-proclaimed institutionalist who spent more than three decades abiding by those rules as a senator, Biden repeatedly defended the often-arcane procedures of the Senate, even as Republicans used them to block his agenda and he came under increasing pressure from liberal activists in his party to rethink his position.
Those rules, he said with admiration more than a decade ago, were about “compromise and moderation,” a core part of his political identity. To support changing them would be to admit that the principles he so cherished had withered in a city now consumed by partisan rancor.
On Tuesday, he made that admission.
“The threat to our democracy is so great that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” he said in an impassioned speech in Atlanta on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. “Debate them. Vote. 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.”
Biden said that he had been “having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months” in the hopes of reaching the kinds of negotiated agreements that he pursued as a senator.
“I’m tired of being quiet,” he said.
It is far from clear that Biden’s words will succeed in convincing the most prominent opponent of a rule change among Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia — to help break the Republican logjam on voting rights legislation. On Tuesday, Manchin said again that he opposed “getting rid” of the filibuster, which allows the minority party to block legislation that fails to garner 60 votes.
Some of Biden’s closest allies said they remained deeply frustrated by the president’s willingness to lead from behind on the issue of voting rights.
“We had hoped he would have used his bully pulpit a long time ago for voting rights and we wouldn’t be at this critical junction,” said Helen Butler, a Black Democrat who was removed from a local election board in Morgan County, Georgia, after a state law gave Republicans more power over such appointments.
“This is about retaining America and, as he put it, the soul of America,” she said.
Democrats who are trying to prevent Republicans from blocking voting rights legislation said they were pleased that Biden had finally come around. And they are hopeful — but realistic — that his voice may help to convince a handful of senators to back a change in the filibuster rules in the days ahead.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who has been leading talks to amend the rules, said Biden came into office with a “particular obligation on his shoulders” — to stand up for voter rights in the wake of the violent assault on the Capitol in January 2021 as his election victory was being certified.
“When somebody who understands the Senate and loves it as much as he does says it’s time to make a change to accomplish a paramount result that the nation needs, it does have an effect,” Kaine said.
For some presidents, choosing to support a change in Senate rules to protect voting rights might also have foreshadowed a broader awakening to the realization that the Senate was no longer a place where partisanship could be put aside for the good of the country.
That is certainly the view of many in his party, who assert that far-reaching legislation like the president’s Build Back Better package and gun control proposals are doomed to falter without wholesale changes to the Senate’s rules.
In effect, they argue that today’s intense partisanship has led to an ideological stalemate that justifies burning down the house in the name of progress on many fronts.