WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden said on Thursday he believes the U.S. Senate should make it harder to use a parliamentary maneuver called the filibuster that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation in the 100-seat chamber, saying it is being abused.
At his first official White House news conference, Biden said he was determined to get things done in Congress, and called the long-standing filibuster rule an obstacle to progress that is being misused by senators “in a gigantic way.”
Biden’s fellow Democrats hold the White House and narrow majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade, and liberals are increasingly urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to scrap the filibuster.
With Republicans holding 50 seats in the Senate, the 60-vote threshold may make it difficult for Biden to achieve key legislative objectives, such as voting rights, climate change, gun control and immigration.
The Democrats are also aware they may have but a short time to act - their slim majorities in both chambers could evaporate as soon as the congressional elections next year. Traditionally, the president’s party loses seats in those contests.
Biden said he favored a return to the “talking filibuster” - a tradition from decades ago that required senators to occupy the floor and make their case against legislation if they opposed it.
“It used to be that you had to stand there and talk and talk and talk and talk until you collapsed, and - guess what? - people got tired of talking,” Biden said.
“I strongly support moving in that direction, in addition to having an open mind about dealing with certain things that are elemental to the direction of our democracy like the right to vote,” Biden added.
Biden added that “if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we will have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, has said his party would adopt a “completely scorched-earth” response if Democrats were to eliminate the filibuster.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said he thought Biden had sent a “cautious but important signal” to Republicans that relentless obstruction of legislation was not acceptable.
Senator Raphael Warnock, another Democrat, said he was confident the Democrats’ voting rights bill would pass despite intense Republican opposition.
“The president understands, as I do, that the maintenance and integrity of our democracy is much more important than any Senate rule. And in a real sense, the Republicans have created this crisis by their scorched-earth approach to winning power by any means, including silencing voices of voters,” Warnock said.
But moderate Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he believed the parties could still work together in a way that would make changing the filibuster rule unnecessary. “Going forward, it makes sense to work collaboratively and to find consensus,” he said.
Democrats do not currently have the votes to fully abolish the filibuster. At least two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, oppose ditching the 60-vote threshold, and some others have been quoted as resisting the change as well. Sinema declined comment after Biden’s remarks on Thursday.
Biden, who was in the Senate for 36 years, said he agreed with former President Barack Obama that the filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era, when laws were adopted by some states to restrict the rights of Black people. Those laws remained on the books until the mid-20th century.
“It’s been abused from the time it came into being,” Biden said of the filibuster, but “in an extreme way in the last 20 years. Let’s eliminate the abuse first.”
Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney