Some Dems Won’t Stop Talking About the Filibuster — Here’s the Alarming Agenda Behind the Rhetoric

Pro-life and religious freedom advocates warn that changing the filibuster would facilitate taxpayer funding of abortions and passage of radical legislation like the Equality Act.

U.S. Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol Building (photo: David Mark / Pixabay/CC0)

The legislative filibuster, which requires 60 members of the Senate to invoke cloture to end a debate and vote on legislation, stands as a significant roadblock to President Joe Biden in advancing controversial elements of his agenda. In his first press conference as president, Biden strongly indicated that he would be open to changing the filibuster, a move that would require all 50 Senate Democrats with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote given their thin majority. Such an action would have dire consequences for pro-life and religious freedom concerns, as the Senate is considering controversial pieces of legislation in those areas. 

Biden said Thursday that the filibuster is “being abused in a gigantic way” and that he would “strongly support” reforming the “silent” filibuster, in which the opponents to a bill need only to announce their opposition, to a “talking” filibuster requiring that a senator must be present and talking on the Senate floor. “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,” he added. 

His recent comments on the matter are a significant departure from remarks he made on the Senate floor in 2005 when former President George W. Bush was in office and the Senate was split 50-50 with Republicans holding the tiebreaking vote. Biden said in a speech at the time, “The Senate ought not act rashly by changing its rules to satisfy a strong-willed majority acting in the heat of the moment.” 

“It is not only a bad idea, it upsets the constitutional design and it disservices the country,” he said. “No longer would the Senate be that ‘different kind of legislative body’ that the Founders intended. No longer would the Senate be the ‘saucer’ to cool the passions of the immediate majority.”

Despite Biden’s views on the filibuster when the balance of power was different, he and other top Democrats are employing very different rhetoric now. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said March 15 that the filibuster had “a death grip on American democracy. It’s time we end its power to hold the Senate hostage.” In contrast, he said in 2018 that ending the filibuster “would be the end of the Senate as it was originally devised and created going back to our Founding Fathers.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., commented that “we should eliminate the filibuster despite all the risks,” whereas in 2019 she said, “if you don’t have 60 votes yet, it just means you haven’t done enough advocacy and you need to work a lot harder.” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in 2019 “we should not be doing anything to mess with the strength of the filibuster.” He said this month, “for the sake of our vulnerable populations … the filibuster has to be reformed.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has not directly spoken out in support of ending the filibuster, but said Thursday, “I believe big, bold action is an imperative. We must get that done. And we prefer our Republican colleagues to work with us on these things. Many of the things I mentioned are bipartisan in the sense that a majority of Republicans support them.” He added, “If they don’t” work with us, “our caucus will come together and we will discuss the best way to produce that big bold action and as I’ve said before everything, everything is on the table.” 


Racism Rhetoric

Prominent Democrats have embraced the idea that the filibuster has a racist history due to its past use against civil rights legislation, including most recently President Biden who said during his press conference that he agreed with a statement from former President Barack Obama that the filibuster is “a relic of the Jim Crow era.” However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., challenged that rhetoric asking, “If our Democratic colleagues really believe what they’re saying, did they themselves use a racist tool against Sen. Scott’s police reform bill last year? ... Did they use a racist relic when they delayed the CARES Act or blocked legislation to protect unborn babies who can feel pain?”

The Washington Post recently fact-checked a claim by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that “the filibuster was created so that slave owners could hold power over our government.” Fact-checker Salvador Rizzo found “a comprehensive look at history shows that the first recorded filibusters in the Senate concerned issues such as where to locate Congress, what to do about Andrew Jackson’s censure over withdrawn federal deposits, who would be appointed to a publication called the Congressional Globe and whether to create a national bank,” concluding, “lawmakers dedicated to preserving slavery or segregation may have exploited the filibuster for their own purposes, but they did not create it.” 

While the clamor to end the filibuster increases, some Democrats are holding firm on keeping the current rules in place. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have come out strongly against ending the filibuster, although Manchin signaled willingness to support the talking filibuster. “We’ve made it more comfortable over the years, not intentionally; maybe it just evolved into that,” he told Fox’s Chris Wallace. Maybe it has to be more painful. Maybe you have to stand there.”


Controversial Legislation

The pro-life movement is concerned at the prospect of eliminating the filibuster. Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement this month, “The pro-abortion extremists controlling Washington want to eliminate the legislative filibuster so they can force taxpayer-funded abortions and expand the size of the Supreme Court, filling it with pro-abortion justices. They also want to eliminate it so that Washington can seize control of elections, overriding all state election laws.”

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, said Thursday, “Despite razor-thin margins in Congress, abortion radicals are push such sweeping social reconstruction in a number of measures that the law as we know it and the country that we love will not be able to continue. The only thing blocking those unprecedented efforts are the filibuster that requires bipartisan agreement to enact great change.” Her group has sponsored billboards in West Virginia reading, “Senator Manchin, Save Babies, Save the Filibuster.”

Two controversial measures that could cause abortion expansion and religious freedom concerns are the Equality Act and the For the People Act. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that the Equality Act “jeopardizes existing prohibitions on the use of federal taxpayer funds for abortion, likely pressuring or even mandating the performance of abortions by health care providers in violation of their consciences, and ultimately ending more human lives.” Catholic News Agency reported that for pro-life groups like March for Life Action, the For the People Act would “treat small-dollar donors like lobbyists. Thus, it would limit their communication with supporters and require the disclosure of small donors — possibly affecting future donations.”

Interestingly enough, abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL are not joining the vocal push to eliminate the filibuster. Politico reported recently that the groups “know that killing the legislative filibuster could remove an obstacle to getting abortion rights legislation on the books while Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade. At the same time, they see how easy it would be for a future Republican Senate to roll back progressive policies and implement new bans, and they keenly recall getting burned by the GOP’s similar rules change for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.”

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