President Joe Biden didn’t mince words earlier this week in a speech announcing his support for changing the filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to pass new voting rights legislation.
“Do you want to be the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?,” asked Biden. “Do you want to be the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide, to defend our elections, to defend our democracy. If you do that you will not be alone.”
For one Democratic senator, Biden’s rhetoric was over the top.
“It is stark. And I will concede that point,” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday of Biden’s language, later adding: “Perhaps the President went a little too far in his rhetoric. Some of us do.”
That’s not an insignificant critique of the President. Durbin is a veteran voice in the chamber, who at one point was seen as a potential leader of Senate Democrats. He’s neither a malcontent nor a backbencher. And that he is willing to go on the record with his belief that Biden “went a little too far” is notable.
At issue is whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (and Biden) can convince all 50 senators in the Democratic caucus to vote to change the rules that currently require 60 votes to end the Senate’s unlimited debate in order to bring a voting rights package to the floor for a vote.
Even before Biden gave his speech – comparing the current opposition of Republicans to the voting rights legislation to segregationists – that seemed like an unlikely proposition. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, both Democrats, have made clear that they do not support eliminating the filibuster for any sort of legislation – up to and including the voting rights measures Schumer is pushing. Other Democrats like Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen all appear to be on the fence about the filibuster move too.
It’s worth asking the question then whether the President hindered rather than helped the efforts to get all 50 Democratic votes on board with the filibuster change. (Biden went to Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with Democrats in the Senate about the fate of voting rights.)
Sinema, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor on Thursday, reiterated her opposition to changing the filibuster rules.
“When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will be inextricably pushed from the middle towards the extremes,” she said. “I understand there are some on both sides of the aisle who prefer it that way, but I do not. Arizonans do not.”
Now, it’s worth noting that even before Biden’s speech on Tuesday, the prospects of changing the filibuster rules to deal with voting rights was very much in doubt. Manchin and, to a lesser extent, Sinema, had been adamant – and publicly so – about not getting rid of the filibuster using only Democratic votes.
So, it’s possible that the Biden speech had little actual negative effect on his desired audience. But it certainly doesn’t seem to have helped him either.
And Republicans – led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – immediately jumped on Biden’s tone to make the case that he had gone way overboard. McConnell called the speech a “rant,” “incoherent,” “incorrect” and “pure, pure demagoguery.” He also said that it was “profoundly unpresidential.”
McConnell will also likely use Biden’s new openness to getting rid of the filibuster for voting rights legislation as a way to motivate the Republican base in advance of this year’s midterm elections – noting what a Democratic-controlled Senate in 2023 could mean for conservative priorities and principles.
Given all of that, it seems – at least in the short-term – that Biden’s speech earlier this week did more harm than good for his efforts to cajole the Senate into jettisoning the filibuster. Which, obviously, is the opposite of what he was going for presumably.