A Bit of History
Senator’s being gentlemen as thought by Aaron Burr led to the removal of the Previous Question Motion.
The House and Senate rulebooks in 1789 were nearly identical with each having a rule book including what is known as the “Previous Question” motion. The House kept their motion and the Senate eliminated it. The Motion empowers a simple majority to cut off debate. The Senate has no such rule in its books to do so.
What happened to the Senate’s rule?
In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr was presiding over the Senate after being indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton. He offered this advice saying something like this:
You are a great deliberative body and a truly great Senate would have a cleaner rule book. The Senate’s is a mess. You have lots of rules doing the same thing.
Burr singled out the Previous Question Motion as an example. Today, we know that a simple majority in the House can use the rule to cut off debate. The Senate in 1806 dropped the motion from the Senate rule book.
Which brings us to where we are today, one party led by one man is abusing the power it has in the Senate and blocking its function. McConnell has threated the Senate.
Biden Has One Shot to Stop Republicans’ Voter Suppression Crusade; Vanity Fair Hive, Eric Lutz, March 16, 2021
Earlier this month, Joe Biden signed an executive order to ensure that Americans’ right to vote is “protected and defended”—a move that came as Republicans across the country intensify their attacks on the voting rights of Black Americans and other marginalized groups, who already face systemic barriers.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented insurrection in our Capitol and a brutal attack on our democracy on January 6—a never-before-seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people,” Biden said in a video statement. “It’s been followed by an all-out assault on the right to vote in state legislatures all across the country,” he continued, citing the hundreds of bills that have been introduced in 43 states to dramatically roll back voting rights. “We cannot let them succeed.”
But Biden could find himself helping Republicans do just that if he doesn’t change his position on the Senate filibuster. Led by progressives, a growing chorus of Democrats have been calling to abolish or at least modify the filibuster to make it harder for Mitch McConnell and the GOP minority to obstruct their agenda. Those demands have taken on a greater sense of urgency amid Republican disenfranchisement efforts. With state lawmakers across the country using Donald Trump’s bogus election fraud claims to push wildly restrictive voting laws, and the Supreme Court, to which he appointed three justices, potentially on the cusp of dealing another blow to the Voting Rights Act, Democrats and activists have rallied behind HR1, a sweeping bill to secure elections, expand voting access, and restore the pro-democracy law named for the late John Lewis. It passed the House March 3.
“At a time when Americans across the political spectrum are demanding real change and accountability from their elected officials, it’s more important than ever to deliver on the promise of HR1 and restore faith in our democracy,”
Representative John Sarbanes, who introduced the bill, said upon its passage.
“We have no time to waste.”
The bill stands less of a chance in the Senate, at least under the current rules. That’s because it would need the support of at least 10 members of the very party seeking to limit voting, thanks to the filibuster. Democrats, from progressives to moderates like Amy Klobuchar, are calling for the barrier, which was once used to quash civil rights, to be lifted. Even the conservative Democrat Joe Manchin, who ardently opposes eliminating the filibuster entirely, has suggested reforming it to make it more difficult to use. But Biden has resisted changing the rule, maintaining that an “opportunity” remains to “work on a bipartisan basis” with Republicans—the implication, of course, being that nixing the filibuster would be giving up on the possibility of unity and compromise.
“The president’s preference is not to get rid of the filibuster,”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters March 8.
“His preference is not to make changes to the filibuster rules,” Psaki continued. “He believes that, with the current structure, that he can work with Democrats and Republicans to get work and business done.”
To his credit, Biden has, in his first 50 days in office, been able to amass an impressive number of accomplishments—some with bipartisan support. But the most significant ones, including his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, came in spite of, not because of, the efforts of Republicans, and talk of bipartisanship on issues like voting rights assumes a degree of good faith that simply isn’t there. It’s fine and perhaps even good that the president hasn’t given up on working across the aisle. But there’s optimism and there’s naivety, and to assume members of the party of Trump will cross over and stand against disenfranchisement efforts that will likely benefit them is to put the hard-fought rights of Black Americans and others who helped Democrats take the White House and Congress at risk.
“We’re headed for a showdown between the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the filibuster—a relic of Jim Crow,”
Congressman Joaquin Castro told Politico.
With Democrats increasingly lining up behind filibuster elimination or reform, it’s possible that Biden will come around, at least to prevent civil rights legislation like HR1 from being thwarted by the tool, as top Biden ally Jim Clyburn recently suggested. It won’t be easy for Biden, a creature of the Senate with a reverence for its traditions and dealmaking. But at the end of the day, he may have to decide what he cares about more—the preservation of the longstanding but flawed rule that his opponents will exploit to derail him, or the constitutional rights of the same Americans who voted last fall to protect it.
Update to McConnell’s threats. Jose Biden and ABC Newscast with George Stephanopoulos :
With McConnell coming out against controlling the filibuster with threats in future Senates, President Joe Biden has taken up a new position on the filibuster in his conversation with
Stephanopoulos: asks of Biden: “Aren’t you going to have to choose between preserving the filibuster, and advancing your agenda?”
Biden: “Yes, but here’s the choice: 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.”
Stephanopulos: “So you’re for that reform? You’re for bringing back the talking filibuster?”
Biden stated: “I am. That’s what it was supposed to be. It’s getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning.
The Democrats have two years to get things done with or without Republican help. Hopefully, they can capitalize on Republican and McConnell’s unwillingness to work with Democrats.
This is getting interesting as Democrats are willing to take on Republicans for once and do something about the filibuster which has been a long time in coming. It remains to be seen if citizens will back Biden and Demoocrats stance now and in 2022.