WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden wants the Senate to engage in old-fashioned filibusters, forcing senators who try to block bills to have to stand and talk for hours, as happened in Hollywood movies and during the civil rights era, if they want to object to his legislative agenda.
It would be a dramatic shift for the Senate, a throwback, embraced by leading Democrats in the 50-50 chamber who are looking for ways to prevent a Republican blockade of Biden's priorities.
Requiring a “talking filibuster” would force senators opposing a bill to make their case, rather than simply signal objections, but it could also grind the Senate to a halt and turn deliberations into a made-for-TV spectacle with political fallout for all sides.
Biden's backing gave a boost Wednesday to centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has suggested a similar approach, but leading senators said they're not quite ready to make any quick changes.
“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster. You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” Biden said in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “You had to stand up and command the floor. You had to keep talking.”
The filibuster question is expected to hover over this first year of Biden's presidency. Fresh off passage of Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Democrats who control the Senate will face challenges passing the rest of their priorities. While the House is able to approve bills swiftly, the rules of the Senate are more cumbersome. A single senator can now signal an intent to filibuster, setting a 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation.
There are political risks and rewards at play, and Republican leader Mitch McConnell has vowed a “scorched earth" payback if Democrats change the rules to fully eliminate the filibuster.
For now, Democratic senators want to show Americans what they're up against by bringing forward potentially popular proposals the House has already passed, including bills to expand voting rights and background checks for gun purchases, and forcing Republican opponents to articulate the case against them.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip, said, “This is a process." He said it was important to demonstrate to those skeptical of the rules changes "how the rules can be used and abused before we go any further.”
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that “all options are on the table."
McConnell baited Democrats into the filibuster debate by issuing a stark warning this week that he would make sure the Senate all but ceases to function if Democrats eliminate the filibuster.
“Let me say this very clearly for all 99 of my colleagues: Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin — can even begin to imagine — what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” he said Tuesday.
McConnell implied that Republicans would prevent consent for even routine operations — from the start time for Senate sessions, to the reading of long legislative texts — making the partisan gridlock of the Trump and Obama eras look like “child’s play” compared with what’s to come.
In the interview, Biden stopped short of calling for the elimination of the filibuster, as some Democrats have proposed, siding with Manchin and others who don't want to go that far. But he drew on his own experience as a longtime senator to suggest the old-fashioned practice can be worthwhile.
“You’ve got to work for the filibuster,” he added. “It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning.”
Leading Democratic senators said it will take time to show Americans in the weeks and months ahead just how broken the Senate has become. Only then will they engage in potential changes to the rules or procedures.
The leading proponent of filibuster changes, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the president “recognized that the government of the United States can’t do its job if it’s paralyzed.”
“I think we’ll see the year unfold,” Merkley said. “If McConnell continues his strategy of obstruction and delay, then we’re going to work hard to bring everybody together to make the Senate work.”
The filibuster was made famous in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” when the Jimmy Stewart character spoke for hours on the Senate floor. It was used to stall civil rights legislation, notably with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s record-setting 24-hour-plus filibuster over the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
Supporters of the process say it protects the rights of the party not in power, but detractors argue it is being used to block popular bills.
Several Republicans are likely to be eager to take their turn talking for hours on the Senate floor to rail against the White House.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, once filibustered for hours reading Dr. Seuss' “Green Eggs and Ham” as his young daughters watched on TV at home. “We can expect Republicans to use every procedural tool we have to fight back,” he told reporters at the Capitol.
It takes 51 votes to change Senate rules and do away with the filibuster, and Democrats do not appear to have the support from within their ranks to do so, even with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker.
At least two Democratic senators, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have signaled their objections, and there are others.
Changes to the filibuster have been underway for a decade, an escalating procedural arms race alongside the nation's rising partisanship.
Democrats did away with the filibuster rules to overcome Republican stonewalling of President Barack Obama's executive branch nominations and some judicial nominees.
Republicans then escalated the process by eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court justices, smoothing confirmation of President Donald Trump's three high court nominees.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.