Joe Biden May Want to Look at the Company He's Kept When It Comes to the Filibuster

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Posted: Mar 31, 2021 1:15 PM
Joe Biden May Want to Look at the Company He's Kept When It Comes to the Filibuster

Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Editor's Note: This piece uses graphic language in referencing a direct quote. 

If you do a Google search on the filibuster, you're bound to get results about some Democratic lawmaker or talking head decrying the so-called racist nature of this "relic" of the past. This is likely to be the case for a long time to come. 

President Biden himself indicated he believes the filibuster is racist. During his first and so far only press conference – which happened after he had been in office for 64 days, longer than any president in televised history – the president was asked repeatedly about his opinion on the filibuster. As was the case for many of his responses, which one can see from the transcript, he was incapable of answering a direct question

In the second question of the day, PBS' Yamiche Alcindor clarified "when it comes to the filibuster, which is what Zeke was asking about." Zeke Miller of AP had asked, "How far are you willing to go to achieve those promises that you made to the American people?" 

Oh, Zeke. President Biden is a politician and is old enough where, more than once, he doesn't even know he's president; he's referred to the vice president as "President Harris." You need to be more specific than that, though expecting a direct answer to a direct question is too much to ask. 

Here's the relevant back and forth between Alcindor and the president: 

Alcindor: Why not back a filibuster rule that at least gets around issues including voting rights or immigration?

Biden: Well, look, I’m going to deal with all of those problems. The question is, the priorities as they come and land on my plate. 

Alcindor:  And can you answer the filibuster (inaudible)?

Biden: Filibuster. Filibuster. You know, with regard to the filibuster, I believe we should go back to a position on the filibuster that existed just when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago. And that is that — it used to be required for the filibuster — and I had a card on this; I was going to give you the statistics, but you probably know them — that it used to be that, that from between 1917 to 1971 — the filibuster existed — there was a total of 58 motions to break a filibuster that whole time. Last year alone, there were five times that many. So it’s being abused in a gigantic way.

And, for example, it used to be you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed. And guess what? People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. Filibusters broke down, and we were able to break the filibuster, get a quorum, and vote.

So I strongly support moving in that direction, in addition to having an open mind about dealing with certain things that are — are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy, like the right to vote — like the basic right to vote. We’ve amended the filibuster in the past.

But here’s the deal: As you observed, I’m a fairly practical guy. I want to get things done. I want to get them done, consistent with what we promised the American people. And in order to do that in a 50-50 Senate, we’ve got to get to the place where I get 50 votes so that the Vice President of the United States can break the tie, or I get 51 votes without her.

And so, I’m going to say something outrageous: I have never been particularly poor at calculating how to get things done in the United States Senate. So the best way to get something done, if you — if you hold near and dear to you that you like to be able to — anyway —

I — we’re going to get a lot done. And 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

The president may have wanted to clarify his points. The Washington Examiner is luckily there to help with that. The headline says it all, with "Democrats used filibuster 327 times, compared to only once by GOP in 2020: Report." Fox News' John Roberts also lays it out: 

What do you know, the next question, from Seung Min Kim of the Washington Post, also asked for clarity with the president's position on the filibuster. President Biden's non-answer still managed to use a whole lot of words, though: 

Min Kimm: Thank you, Mr. President, to follow up on the filibuster: So do you believe it should take 60 votes to end a filibuster on legislation or 51?

Biden: (Laughs.) If we could end it with 51, we would have no problem. You’re going to have to — the existing rule — it’s going to be hard to get a parliamentary ruling that allows 50 votes to end the filibuster, the existence of a filibuster.

But it’s not my expertise, in what the parliamentary rules and how to get there are. But our preoccupation with the filibuster is totally legitimate, but in the meantime, we got a lot we can do while we’re talking about what we’re going to do about the filibuster.

Here's one of the more "yikes" moments of the press conference. To CNN's Kaitlan Collins' credit, she really did try here: 

Collins: Thank you very much, Mr. President. I have a question for you, but first I’d like to follow up on a question from Yamiche, and that’s on the filibuster.

Biden: That counts as a question, but go ahead.

...

Collins: Regarding the filibuster: At John Lewis’s funeral, President Barack Obama said he believed the filibuster was a “relic” of the Jim Crow era. Do you agree?

Biden: Yes.

Collins: And if not, why not abolish it if it’s a relic of the Jim Crow era?

Biden: Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let’s figure out how we can get this done and move in the direction of significantly changing the abuse of even the filibuster rule first. It’s been abused from the time it came into being — by an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s deal with the abuse first.

Collins: It sounds like you’re moving closer to eliminating the filibuster. Is that correct?

Biden: I answered your question.

Biden gave another particularly curious response. Part of CBS' Nancy Cordes' question asked about "voting rights," which again, turned into a bizarre part of the day: 

Cordes: I want to go back to voting rights. And as Yamiche mentioned, Republican legislatures across the country are working to pass bills that would restrict voting, particularly, Democrats fear, impacting minority voters and young voters — the very people who helped to get you elected in November. Are you worried that if you don’t manage to pass voting rights legislation that your party is going to lose seats and possibly lose control of the House and the Senate in 2022?

Biden: What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick. Deciding in some states that you cannot bring water to people standing in line, waiting to vote; deciding that you’re going to end voting at five o’clock when working people are just getting off work; deciding that there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances.

It’s all designed — and I’m going to spend my time doing three things: One, trying to figure out how to pass the legislation passed by the House, number one. Number two, educating the American public. The Republican voters I know find this despicable. Republican voters, the folks out in — outside this White House. I’m not talking about the elected officials; I’m talking about voters. Voters.

And so I am convinced that we’ll be able to stop this because it is the most pernicious thing. This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic what they’re trying to do, and it cannot be sustained.

I’m going to do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from — from becoming the law.

Cordes: Is there anything else you can do about it besides passing legislation?

Biden: The answer is “yes,” but I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of the whole world and you now.
 

So, where exactly does the president stand on the filibuster going forward? Inquiring minds want to know. It's not just Townhall, but outlets such as Politico, with "dodges" in its headline; CBS News, with "signals" in its headline; and Forbes, with "hints at" in its headline. 

As much as they did try to pry an answer from the president, it would have been a spicy but also fair course of action for even just one of the lucky few reporters who got called on to ask about one of then-Sen. and then-Vice President Biden's best friends for life (BFFL), the late senator and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Byrd. 

Of all the Google results on the filibuster, including alongside Joe Biden, I can't seem to find much recent news about Joe Biden and Robert Byrd on the filibuster. 

While I'm glad that Katie and I are talking about this, Townhall and the Duluth News Tribune via a column from Michael Reagan shouldn't be the only ones doing so. 

Vox's Zack Beauchamp provides a fascinating but ultimately disappointing read with "The filibuster’s racist history, explained." Relevant portions, with original emphasis, include: 

What’s not especially controversial among scholars is that the modern filibuster is inextricably bound up with Jim Crow.

“It’s been a tool used overwhelmingly by racists,” says Kevin Kruse, a historian of race and American politics at Princeton University.

...

The defenders of Jim Crow pioneered this new filibuster, successfully deploying it again and again to block civil rights bills. Richard Russell, a leading filibuster practitioner and staunch segregationist, said in 1949 that “nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it.” 

...

They also found that the senators’ view on filibuster reforms was tightly linked to their view on civil rights: Pro-reform senators tended to support civil rights bills, while anti-reform legislators opposed them.

...

So while the early republic’s “talking filibuster” may not have had racist origins, the modern filibuster — the one that allows Mitch McConnell to impose a 60-vote requirement on anything Biden and Democrats propose — clearly does.

I wish I could call it comprehensive, but not once does the piece reference Robert Byrd. Not once in a piece that is more than 1,500 words. 

Sen. Byrd did more or less repent from those days, and earned the support from NAACP leading up to his death, though he had an odd way of showing it. The following quote contains the senator using a racial epithet twice in a live interview from 2001: 

My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white n****rs. I've seen a lot of white n****rs in my time. I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much.

She seems nice. 

Sen. Byrd, a lifelong Democrat and at points during his career third in line for the presidency as the President pro tempore of the Senate, infamously used the filibuster when it came to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Vice President Biden went on to eulogize Byrd at his funeral in 2010. Biden also appeared with Byrd on the 2008 campaign trail. How did news outlets cover it? They fact-checked a claim that Byrd was a grand wizard of the KKK when he was actually a kleagle, which is a funny-sounding word meaning he was responsible for recruiting members. 

If the president is going to talk about this "relic of the Jim Crow era," perhaps he should look at the company he's kept and whose legacy he's celebrated.