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White House Says Democrats Might Revisit Filibuster Rules If Voting Rights Bill Fails

White House press secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at the White House on Monday. Reporters asked about the administration's next steps on voting rights.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
White House press secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at the White House on Monday. Reporters asked about the administration's next steps on voting rights.

Updated June 21, 2021 at 9:04 PM ET

The White House on Monday opened the door to revisiting the filibuster — a hotly contested issue across political lines — setting the stage for a bitter congressional fight to do away with the controversial debate tactic.

Responding to a question about Tuesday's Senate debate on voting rights legislation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: "As it relates to the filibuster, I don't think you have to take it from us, that would be Congress moving forward — or making a decision. If the vote is unsuccessful tomorrow, we suspect it will prompt a new conversation about the path forward. And we'll see where that goes."

The filibuster is a long-standing Senate practice used to delay a proposed law from being brought to a vote — a tactic that has picked up steam over the last 10 years. It has only been used once so far this session, to block a vote on a bipartisan commission investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The voting rights bill at the center

Senate Democrats will on Tuesday begin debate in pursuit of sweeping overhauls to current voting laws. The proposal is called the For the People Act.

The bill comes as Republican-led states nationwide seek to implement a number of restrictive voting measures that opponents say could significantly curtail the ability of minorities and lower-income Americans to cast ballots. Republicans defend these measures as necessary to safeguard the security of U.S. elections.

After President Biden's 2020 presidential win, many Republicans, at the urging of former President Donald Trump, launched a smear campaign, falsely alleging that ballot irregularities were the cause of their White House defeat.

In order for the party to be successful in advancing a federal voting rights bill, Democrats would have to vote in lockstep support of the measure and get the support of 10 Senate Republicans. Some Democrats and outside advocates say without any likely backing of GOP senators, Democratic leaders should change Senate rules — getting rid of the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate.

Party moderates including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have opposed both measures, leading to significant infighting among Democrats about next steps.

The White House said Biden spoke to both senators Monday — Manchin on voting rights and infrastructure, and Sinema in regards to infrastructure — and thanked them both for their "engagement."

Where Biden stands

Biden, himself formerly a member of the Senate, in March endorsed changing the filibuster to "what it used to be," requiring senators to physically take to the floor and speak ceaselessly in order to delay a vote.

Despite the common misconception, as it stands now, a Senate staffer can send an email registering a senator's objection and triggering a 60-vote requirement to advance a bill to a final up-or-down vote — without having to make a speech or any other effort.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has warned of a logistical nightmare if those rules were to change and lawmakers were constantly required to be physically present at the Capitol. Plus, he's said that when Republicans regain majority control of the chamber, "We wouldn't just erase every liberal change that hurt the country. We'd strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side."

Even with Biden's cosignature, Democrats have been unable to unanimously reach an agreement on either voting rights reform or the filibuster.

Vice President Harris was tapped to lead the administration's strategy on voting rights but so far hasn't come forward with concrete steps on the issue.

Obama's argument

Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president and who remains a popular figure among Democrats, on Monday expressed his support for overhauling the filibuster during a conference call with voting rights activists and former Attorney General Eric Holder.

"Unfortunately, right now at least, Republicans in the Senate are right now lining up to try to use the filibuster to stop the For the People Act from even being debated," Obama said.

"Think about this: In the aftermath of an insurrection, with our democracy on the line, and many of these same Republican senators going along with the notion that somehow there were irregularities and problems with legitimacy in our most recent election — they're suddenly afraid to even talk about these issues and figure out solutions on the floor of the Senate. They don't even want to talk about voting," he said, referencing the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"That's not acceptable."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise joined WAMU in September 2018 as the 2018-2020 Audion Reporting Fellow for Guns & America. Selected as one of 10 recipients nationwide of the Audion Reporting Fellowship, Alana works in the WAMU newsroom as part of a national reporting project and is spending two years focusing on the impact of guns in the Washington region.
Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.