President Joe Biden said Thursday during the first formal news conference of his presidency that he agreed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster “was a relic of the Jim Crow era,” but stressed his immediate focus was addressing abuse of the rule.
Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins if he agreed with Obama’s characterization of the controversial procedural tool, which came during the former President’s eulogy last summer for the late Democratic congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, Biden replied, “Yes.”
Pressed on why he hadn’t moved to end the filibuster if that’s the case, the President maintained, “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,” Biden said. “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.”
When Collins noted it sounded like he was moving closer to supporting eliminating the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote threshold to end debate on legislation, he responded, “I answered your question.”
The filibuster is a procedural tool that can be used by senators to delay or block a vote on legislation or an appointment. It can be employed to keep a debate going without interruption indefinitely.
The term was popularized during the 1850s, “when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill,” according to the official Senate website, which also notes, “The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.”
Democrats have passed several key bills in the House recently, including voting rights and police reform, but getting legislation through the 50-50 Senate, where some bills require 60 votes to pass, has been an obstacle for them.
Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose defense of the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold has complicated efforts to enact new gun laws and voting rights measures, told reporters Thursday he disagreed with Biden that the procedure is a Jim Crow relic.
“Basically the Senate is made to work differently,” the West Virginian said, arguing that the chamber is meant to be deliberative to allow senators a chance to find consensus. “This was designed to be something different.”
Earlier in the news conference, Biden said the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way” and suggested he “strongly” supports moving back to the original process of the filibuster, which would require a senator who wants to block legislation to hold the floor without taking a break.
He had told ABC News earlier this month, “I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days.”
“You had to stand up and command the floor; you had to keep talking,” Biden said at the time.
Still, Biden said Thursday that he has an “open mind” about using the filibuster for certain topics, including voting rights, a key legislative priority for him that does not currently have the votes to pass.
People close to Biden previously told CNN that his resistance to changes in Senate rules stems from a staunch respect for its traditions and practices and an awareness that Democrats won’t always be in the majority.
This story has been updated with background information and further details.