In a letter to Senate Democrats Monday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed quick action in the new year on voting rights and elections reforms, potentially including a change to the Senate filibuster to allow Democrats to break the Republican blockade. He got a key endorsement for that proposal Thursday morning, from President Joe Biden.
“If the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster, I support making the exception of voting rights for the filibuster,” Biden told ABC News’ David Muir in an interview that aired Thursday morning. That’s the most direct statement of support for filibuster reform from Biden yet, following a sharpening of his language on the Republican assault on democracy.
In a keynote address at the South Carolina State University’s fall commencement, Biden decried the erosion of voting rights at the hands of Republican leaders. “It’s not who we are. It’s a minority, but if the majority doesn’t speak up it has a profound impact, as we’ve seen in the last few years,” he told the graduates and their families at the historically Black university.
Speaking of past progress in civil rights, he said, “I thought we had some of those major victories. We finally crossed the threshold. […] But what I didn’t realize is you can defeat hate, but you can’t eliminate it.” He continued, “And when given oxygen by political leaders it comes out, ugly and mean as it was before. We can’t give it any oxygen. We have to step on it. We have to respond to it.”
“It’s not who we are,” he said. “It’s a minority, but if the majority doesn’t speak up it has a profound impact, as we’ve seen in the last few years.” He also, for pretty much the first time, got partisan and called out Republicans for blockading the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts.
“Each and every time it gets to be brought up, that other team blocks the ability even to start to discuss it,” Biden said. “The team used to be called the Republican Party.”
Thursday’s announcement that he now supports stopping that blockade helps. In Monday’s letter, Schumer told Democrats that he will bring up the blocked bills and that the Senate would “consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation” when Republicans inevitably block it.
“I would ask you to consider this question,” he wrote. “If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?”
He also included a pointed message for both Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—and any anti-reform Democrats who’ve been hiding behind them. “I believe our constituents deserve to know which senators choose to hide behind ill-conceived and abused rules and which senators prefer to restore Senate floor procedures to better align with the founders’ intentions,” Schumer wrote. He also pointed out that the revered former Sen. Robert Byrd, whose seat Manchin now holds, said back in 1979 that sometimes Senate rules that seemed appropriate “must be changed to reflect changed circumstance.”
Whether the vote actually can happen as early as the first week of January—the Senate is scheduled to be back on Monday, Jan. 3—isn’t clear. A third Democrat, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Democrats Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Cory Booker (NJ) both said they had tested positive Sunday. That follows a marathon at the end of last week in which the Senate stayed in until the early hours of Saturday to pass a raft of nominations.