Obama now calls the filibuster he once earnestly defended a ‘Jim Crow relic’

As a U.S. senator in 2005, Barack Obama stood on the floor of the chamber and gave an impassioned speech in defense of the filibuster.

But now, both he and another Senate veteran-turned-president, Joe Biden, are decrying the rule as a “relic” of the “Jim Crow” era.

During his speech nearly 16 years ago, Obama argued against ending the filibuster at a time when Republicans held the House, Senate, and the presidency, because it would allow a single party to “change the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.”

“If the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to Democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse,” Obama predicted.

But during a speech in July 2020 honoring the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who fought for civil rights during the 1960s, Obama said that the filibuster should be ended if it meant passing new civil rights and voting rights legislation.

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

Other Democrats who backed the filibuster until the party kept a slim majority following the 2020 election have since changed their minds, too.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts announced her opposition to the rule in 2019 as she was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. She went on to deem the rule “racist” but then went on to filibuster GOP Sen. Tim Scott’s police reform bill in June 2020.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois is also expressing an interest in getting rid of the rule after he and his party spent months ahead of the 2020 elections filibustering then-President Donald Trump’s agenda.

The filibuster, a procedure that has its roots in the Roman Senate, has been in use in the U.S. Senate for about 215 years. The rule allows any senator to command the floor in objection to a piece of proposed legislation that then requires a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate. The 60-vote threshold is not a constitutional requirement but rather a longstanding Senate procedural rule that gives the body its deliberative hallmark and protects the rights of the minority, thus giving their voters representation.

In the past, senators have often talked for hours, many times off-topic, in order to stall legislation. Today, however, senators only have to signal an intent to filibuster, even in private, for majority leaders to either work out compromises with the minority party or drop the legislation altogether.

The current makeup of the Senate is 50-50; any vote to end the filibuster would take a simple majority, and Democrats would win that battle with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker.

But that’s if all Democrats voted in favor of lifting the rule. 

In recent weeks two Democrats from red or predominantly red states — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have signaled they were opposed to ending the rule.

“I’ve been very clear with you guys,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said in response to reporters’ repeated questions about his position on the filibuster in January. “We’ve got to come together, so I do not support doing away with the filibuster under any condition. It’s not who I am.”

Also, representatives for Sinema dismissed a Washington Post report that month suggesting she was open to ditching the rule as well. One spokesperson told the paper that she is “against eliminating the filibuster, and she is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised both Democrats, and noted that both parties managed to share power in 2001 when the chamber was divided 50-50, with a GOP administration. 

“The legislative filibuster was a key part of the foundation beneath the Senate’s last 50-50 power-sharing agreement in 2001. With these assurances, I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modeled on that precedent,” McConnell said.

Manchin appeared to briefly signal he was willing to consider changing the rule, but quickly backed away and said he would “never” vote to do so.

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Jon Dougherty

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