Filibuster Threatens Joe Biden, Democrats Agenda, Leaving All Eyes on Joe Manchin

President Joe Biden this week signaled that his position is softening on upholding the Senate rule that requires support from 60 senators to pass most legislation, as he faces mounting pressure on key Democratic priorities like infrastructure, voter rights, immigration, gun violence and the environment.

"We're going to get a lot done," Biden, who has previously voiced support for altering—but keeping—the long-standing filibuster process, told reporters during his first public press conference. "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 shift is putting additional pressure—or giving more leverage—to Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who could prove to be the necessary 50th vote in the Senate, where Democrats have a razor-thin margin of control, to make a change to the filibuster.

"I think Joe Manchin was his primary audience," Brad Bannon, a longtime Democratic political strategist, told Newsweek. "There's a lot at stake—after four years of Donald Trump, there's a lot of backed-up demand for change from Democrats."

Manchin, who has been in the Senate for the past decade, has remained opposed to blowing up the filibuster to push Democratic priorities through while the party holds majorities in the House and Senate and controls the White house.

"Basically, the Senate is made to work differently," Manchin told reporters at the Capitol this week. "That means the big guy doesn't pick on the little guy."

Manchin has spent weeks dismissing the idea that he would change his tune on the issue—at one point even screaming "NEVER" at reporters who asked in a Capitol hallway if there's a breaking point for him.

"I've been in the minority, I've been in the majority, so...all I'm trying to protect is basically civility but making it work," he said this week.

But with Biden speaking favorably of a possible filibuster change, after the White House had frequently demurred on the subject, seeing it as an issue for the Senate to decide, could represent a significant shift.

"I think that it's pretty significant that Joe Biden is wading into this debate," Carlos Algara, a political science professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, told Newsweek. "I think he wants to show Manchin he's going to make a good-faith effort to work with Republicans, so he can later say, 'Listen, Joe, we tried.'"

The nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in the Senate with 50 votes, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker to get it across the finish line. This was achieved through a budget maneuver that avoided the filibuster, but it cannot be used for most other priority areas of legislation for Democrats.

"We do need to get to a place where it is not so easy to block progress, because the American people need us to act," Harris told reporters Friday.

No Republicans backed the package, titled the American Rescue Plan, despite polls showing broad, bipartisan public support for it.

"I think it's perfectly clear from the COVID relief bill that you're just gonna have Republicans vote against any Biden proposal, despite how popular it is among the public," Algara said. "You're gonna see Republican opposition to every single piece of legislation, and I think the White House now recognizes that."

Democrats have a long buffet of items they are hoping to pass as they aim to keep control—or widen majorities—in the House and Senate in the 2022 midterms. Recent mass shootings have brought the push for tighter background-check restrictions for gun purchases and other measures to the forefront—efforts that Biden supports but won't get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.

"With overwhelming demand to do something about reducing gun violence, Biden is in a position where he's gotta deliver—filibuster be damned," Bannon said. "It's hard to explain that to ordinary Americans—they just see that Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress and there's a Democratic president. They figure, 'It's time to get things done.'"

Bannon said the current situation leaves Democrats trying to explain the challenges of a Senate procedural rule as they say that issues they've run on continue to be a struggle in the upper chamber. "Most voters don't care a hoot about [the filibuster]," he said.

Algara also said he thinks there is less risk for most Democrats in gutting the filibuster in order to advance their priorities. "I don't think voters care a lot about the filibuster, but they recognize policy outcomes," he said.

Additional pressure comes as both Republicans and Democrats angle for power in the second half of Biden's term. Historically, a president's party has performed poorly in midterm elections, and Democrats have few seats to spare in the House and none in the Senate if they want to maintain control.

"If the GOP takes control, any sort of [Biden's] legislative priorities are dead on arrival," Algara said. "The Republicans are just incredibly unified right now."

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Senator Raphael Warnock, who narrowly won a runoff election in Georgia in January, as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in 2022. He campaigned on an effort to protect voting rights and has been a vocal advocate of the "For the People Act," legislation that Democrats have made a priority this year but has no Republican backing.

"The president understands, as I do, that the maintenance and integrity of our democracy is much more important than any Senate rule," Warnock told Capitol reporters this week, after discussing the issue directly with Biden.

Recent shootings that left eight people dead in Georgia and 10 dead in Colorado are also putting pressure on some lawmakers to give the filibuster consideration.

"I think there's so many urgent issues like gun reform that need our attention," Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told reporters. "If Mitch McConnell continues to be obstructionist, then I'll be open to talking about filibuster reform."

Bannon said he thinks that the popularity of the latest relief package—which the White House has touted with events across the country featuring Biden, Harris, first lady Jill Biden, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and others, coupled with a large-scale infrastructure plan that Biden's expected to promote at a Pennsylvania event next week—would win broad support that could help Democrats in the midterms.

"I think Biden realizes—he's been around a long time—he has to play the long game here," Bannon said. "I think if Biden is able to get a substantial part of this second economic package passed and the economy improves, the pandemic recedes, I think Democrats will do well in the midterm elections."

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks on March 25 during his first press conference. JIM WATSON / AFP/Getty Images

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