Biden Is Open to Scrapping Filibuster for Voting Rights Bill ‘and Maybe More’

Biden Is Open to Scrapping Filibuster for Voting Rights Bill ‘and Maybe More’ 1

The president said any push to “fundamentally alter” the Senate’s 60-vote threshold would have to wait until after Congress passed his vast spending agenda.

WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Thursday that he was open to ending the Senate filibuster so Democrats could pass voting rights legislation, raise the federal debt limit and possibly enact other parts of his agenda that had been blocked by Republicans.

Speaking at a CNN town hall meeting, the president also expressed optimism about passage of his infrastructure and social safety net bills even as he offered candid descriptions of closed-door negotiations with two Democratic holdouts.

Mr. Biden had previously said that changing the filibuster rules to allow a debt limit vote was “a real possibility,” but his remarks on Thursday evening suggested that he was ready to pursue broader changes to bypass Republican opposition.

At the town hall, he said ending the filibuster — a Senate tradition that allows the minority party to kill legislation that fails to garner 60 votes — would have to wait until after he secured passage of his spending bills, which are under negotiation on Capitol Hill.

The president said he would lose “at least three votes” on his social policy bill if he pushed an end to the filibuster. He did not say which senators he would lose.

But Mr. Biden was blunt about his intentions once the debate over the spending bills was over. He said the need to pass sweeping voting rights legislation favored by Democrats is “equally as consequential” as the debt limit vote, which protects the full faith and credit of the United States.

Asked by Anderson Cooper, the host of the event, whether that meant he would be open to ending the use of the filibuster so that Democrats could pass a voting rights bill, Mr. Biden said, “and maybe more.”

The president said that activists who are pushing to end the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation “make a very good point,” adding, “We’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster.”

Liberal activists have grown increasingly frustrated with Mr. Biden over the past several months as Republicans used the filibuster to prevent action on major parts of the Democratic agenda. They have accused the president and his allies in Congress of being too passive by refusing to change the rules.

On Wednesday, Republicans blocked action on legislation to bolster voting rights for the third time since Mr. Biden took office. All 50 Democrats and independents supported bringing the Freedom to Vote Act to the floor, but all 50 Republicans voted against doing so, thwarting legislation that Democrats say would counter efforts in Republican-controlled states to impose new voting restrictions.

Some Democrats have urged the president to push for modifications to the filibuster so that he can pass an immigration overhaul, address prison reform and enact more ambitious climate change legislation. If the filibuster remains intact, they argue, Mr. Biden will leave office with half his priorities unmet.

“Black and Brown voters are tired of the same scene playing out over and over,” Stephany R. Spaulding, a spokeswoman for Just Democracy, said in a statement last week. “We launch herculean mobilizations to get Democrats elected. Democrats bring legislation to the floor that would benefit communities of color, and Republicans won’t even engage in a good-faith debate.”

“Senate Democrats can no longer divorce the filibuster from the promises and issues they ran on,” she added. “They must act with urgency to get rid of the filibuster.”

Democrats appeared to gain some momentum toward changing the filibuster rules this month, after Republicans threatened to use the tool to prevent an increase in the debt limit, a move that economists said could lead to a financial disaster.

But Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, backed down and allowed a vote on a bill that raised the debt ceiling until at least early December.

Mr. Biden’s comments on Thursday are likely to give Democratic activists some renewed hope that he will take on the filibuster. He also said he supported the idea of bringing back a rule that would require senators to conduct a filibuster by actually speaking and automatically ending the procedure once two senators have given their speeches.

The president spoke of the filibuster during a 90-minute event in which he also expressed confidence that Democrats were closer to a deal on his sprawling domestic policy package, which he said would surpass the Affordable Care Act in its scope and impact on American society.

To advance that package despite unanimous Republican opposition, Democrats are using a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation, which shields fiscal legislation from a filibuster. But Mr. Biden needs the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and nearly every House Democrat.

“We’re down to four or five issues, which I’m not going to negotiate on national television,” he said. Lawmakers and aides familiar with the discussion say talks are largely focused on up to $2 trillion in spending over 10 years.

But after weeks of talks largely shrouded in secrecy, the president laid out a detailed assessment of how he and congressional Democrats were trimming an initial $3.5 trillion blueprint, including negotiations with two centrist holdouts, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Mr. Biden acknowledged that expanding Medicare benefits to cover dental, vision and hearing — long championed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — was “a reach” because of Mr. Manchin and, he believed, Ms. Sinema. Instead, the president said they were looking to provide an $800 voucher for dental work. Ms. Sinema appeared open to the hearing benefit, he added, and negotiations were continuing over vision.

“Look, in the United States Senate, when you have 50 Democrats, everyone is the president,” Mr. Biden said.

He publicly conceded that his plans to increase the corporate tax rate could be jettisoned from the bill because of Ms. Sinema’s opposition.

“She says she will not raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and/or on wealthy people, period,” Mr. Biden said. “And so that’s where it sort of breaks down.”

Ms. Sinema has privately committed to enough alternative tax provisions to fully fund up to $2 trillion in spending, said a person familiar with her thinking. A White House official later clarified that the president was specifically referring to the corporate rate.

But while Ms. Sinema was supportive of Mr. Biden’s environmental agenda and much of his proposed spending, he said, Mr. Manchin remained opposed to a clean electricity program. Instead, the president said, he has pushed Mr. Manchin, who has balked at spending more than $1.5 trillion, to approve redirecting around $150 billion set aside for the program toward other policies that would encourage climate-friendly action.

“Joe is open to my convincing him that I can use it to increase environmental progress without it being that particular deal,” Mr. Biden said.

He also conceded that two years of free community college would be dropped from the plan because of opposition from Mr. Manchin and at least one other Democrat, and that he was instead looking to increase the money available for Pell grants. The duration of a federal paid family and medical leave program had been cut to four weeks from 12, Mr. Biden said. And he rejected a proposal, reportedly raised by Mr. Manchin, that an expansion of monthly payments to families with children should have a work requirement.

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.