The left’s fundamental knock against Joe Biden last year was simple: in a crowded Democratic primary field he was by far the most moderate candidate. His voting history was a concern, his policy positions weren’t nearly bold or ambitious enough, and he was literally caught on tape telling big money donors he wouldn’t fundamentally change anything as president. During the primary and even up until a few months ago, the idea that you could apply pressure and push Biden left was laughable.
It might actually be happening, though. And progressives deserve a credit for his (slow) shift.
— Ben Siegel (@bensiegel) March 17, 2021
During an interview with ABC News, Biden said he would be open to reforming the filibuster that would allow the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass bills without Republican votes. It’s not eliminating the filibuster altogether as many have suggested and advocated for, but the kind of reform Biden is discussing—a “talking filibuster“—would more easily allow Dems to push for major legislation. It’s far from official (and not even all that radical, given the current 60-vote filibuster only dates back to 1975), but the fact that Biden is willing to openly discuss a workaround is significant. And the left deserves its credit.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren led the charge in calling for filibuster elimination during the Democratic primary. Prominent progressive politicians and organizations have kept up the fight since, loudly demanding its elimination as Biden’s only hope of passing major legislation would be eliminating the filibuster. Others, like Oregon Senator Jeff Markley, have been advocating for filibuster reform for years—the exact reform Biden just said he’d be open to. Their platforming and advocacy has made filibuster reform a top item issue since Biden won the election and Democrats took control of the Senate after the Georgia runoffs.
Biden deserves some credit himself, but he isn’t some radical or avowed leftist all of the sudden. You won’t hear him caping for universal healthcare or police defunding. He’s still a stickler for tradition and rules and antiquated bipartisanship. But Biden is also a politician who understands which way things are moving, even if his own shift has been glacial (or nonexistent) at times. He knows his stimulus bill was incredibly popular, the same way he knows progressive policies like a $15 federal minimum wage and student debt cancellation are popular. Biden understands the left will circle around him to some degree if their policy goals are met, and signaling his approval of filibuster reform is a big step in acquiescing to it. His harshest left wing critics can acknowledge the American Rescue Plan was a clear political win, and showcased the influence and work of progressive politicians and organizations (despite the final bill not being comprehensive enough). Maintaining pressure on the filibuster is an extension of that influence, even if the winds were already blowing in that direction.
Biden’s tacit interest in filibuster reform doesn’t necessarily call for a victory lap. The reform still has to happen and there are plenty of hurdles left to clear, most notably West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—but even he has expressed some openness in a filibuster workaround, something he never would’ve discussed even a month ago. That’s progress, and it’s a clearer path forward for Democrats to capitalize on their momentum.