Former President Barack Obama called for changes to the filibuster rule if necessary in order to pass voting rights legislation in an op-ed released Wednesday, reiterating calls from a fired-up President Joe Biden in an address earlier this week.
The former president recalled remarks he delivered at a memorial for Rep. John Lewis in 2020 – where he likewise suggested eliminating the Senate rule, which he called “another Jim Crow relic” – and highlighted the effort required to maintain a democracy, a truth he said “John knew better than just about anyone.”
“Our democracy isn’t a given. It isn’t self-executing. We, as citizens, have to nurture and tend it,” Obama wrote in his op-ed published in USA Today. “We have to work at it. And in that task, we have to vigilantly preserve and protect our most basic tool of self-government, which is the right to vote.”
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In his opinion piece, Obama scolded efforts by GOP leaders to hinder the right to vote, citing action at the state level, including bills “designed to suppress votes,” gerrymandering and attempts to “assert power over core election processes including the ability to certify election results” that he says represent a “profound threat to the basic democratic principle that all votes should be counted fairly and objectively.”
“The good news is that the majority of American voters are resistant to this slow unraveling of basic democratic institutions and electoral mechanisms,” Obama wrote.” But their elected representatives have a sacred obligation to push back as well – and now is the time to do it.”
Reiterating Biden’s call for action over voting rights – including changes to the filibuster if necessary – Obama argued that Democrats should be able to pass voting rights legislation “even if Senate Republicans now refuse to stand up for our democracy” with a simple majority vote.
“The only thing standing in the way is the filibuster,” Obama wrote.
The former president said the rule, which allows the minority party to block the majority party’s legislative priorities by effectively requiring a supermajority of senators to agree to end debate and allow a final vote, has “no basis in the Constitution” and has in recent years become “a routine way for the Senate minority to to block important progress on issues supported by the majority of voters.”
“But we can’t allow it to be used to block efforts to protect our democracy,” he said. “That’s why I fully support President Joe Biden’s call to modify Senate rules as necessary to make sure pending voting rights legislation gets called for a vote. And every American who cares about the survival of our most cherished institutions should support the president’s call as well.”
Democrats currently hold an effective majority in the 50-50 Senate, with the tie-breaking vote of Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris. Changing the filibuster rule could allow the chamber to advance legislation with that simple majority, rather than the supermajority required at present to end debate.
Obama’s op-ed comes a day after Biden delivered an uncharacteristically aggressive address calling for the changes, reflecting a newfound impatience with those who won’t protect the right to vote.
“I support changing Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights,” the president said in what was billed as a major voting rights speech in Atlanta.
Biden has no authority to change Senate rules such as the filibuster. But his endorsement of changes to the rule – one that allows a single senator to hold up debate or an up-or-down vote unless 60 senators vote to move things along – is notable, perhaps bringing new urgency to the effort among leaders in his party.
“Sadly, the United States Senate – designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body – has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden said. “It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate. But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills.”