Biden endorses filibuster exception to protect US abortion rights

Pressure builds on Democrats to take bold steps to protect abortion and waive a US Senate rule that has blocked legislation.

US President Joe Biden is seen addressing reporters at the NATO summit in Madrid
US President Joe Biden speaks at a NATO summit on June 30, where he endorsed a carveout for a Senate rule that would allow his party to pass legislation protecting abortion rights [Nacho Doce/Reuters]

President Joe Biden has said that he supports calls to waive the filibuster so that legislation can be passed to protect abortion rights. Since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, calls demanding action from the Democratic Party to protect abortion rights have grown louder.

In a news conference during a NATO summit in Madrid on Thursday, Biden said the US must pass legislation making abortion legal in all 50 US states. The filibuster allows a single legislator to block or delay a piece of legislation unless it has 60 votes, even though legislation requires only a simple majority to pass the US Senate.

The rule has meant that, even with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, the party’s legislative agenda has been largely blocked by the Republican minority. With abortion rights for millions of Americans now threatened by bans in numerous states, Biden said Thursday there should be “an exception to the filibuster” to pass abortion protections.

The president reiterated his support on Twitter, where he said “We have to codify Roe v. Wade into law. And as I said this morning: If the filibuster gets in the way, then we need to make an exception to get it done.”

However, suspending the filibuster would require the support of Democratic lawmakers who have voiced opposition to scrapping or amending the procedure in the past.

The Biden administration and the leadership of his party have come under fire for what progressive critics see as a lack of urgency following the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision. “There has been pressure building up to act and show that we are doing more,” an administration source told the Associated Press.

On Thursday, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to news that the Supreme Court had limited the ability of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions by saying a filibuster carveout was “not enough” and said Democrats should “reform or do away with the whole thing, for the sake of the planet”.

Democrats hope that the court’s decision to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion will be a step too far for voters ahead of the November 8 midterm elections, when the Democrats hope to keep their majorities in the House and the Senate.

Midterm elections have historically been difficult for parties in the majority, and party leaders hope that abortion rights – a top issue for Democratic women, according to a Reuters poll – will galvanise their voters.

Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and pass legislation on a number of key issues, from climate change to gun control to abortion rights. But Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, conservative members of the Democratic caucus, have voiced strong opposition to revising or abandoning the procedure. Senator Manchin’s position on the filibuster had not changed as of Thursday.

In May, Manchin joined with all 50 Republican senators to vote down legislation that would have made abortion legal throughout the US. A voting rights bill also failed in the Senate in January, despite support from Biden for a carveout on the filibuster for that legislation.

Biden is a proceduralist steeped in the traditions and norms of the US Senate, where he served for 36 years. He has been cautious to endorse exceptions to the filibuster, and had not previously done so for abortion rights.

Progressives criticise the filibuster for what the Brennan Center for Justice calls a “racist history” and point out that it gained popularity as a means of blocking civil rights legislation and protecting segregation.

Biden on Thursday expanded the scope of cases where he would consider exceptions to the filibuster, such as entitlements rooted in a right to privacy such as contraception or gay rights.

Conservatives on the Supreme Court have noted that they may revisit cases that enshrined constitutional protections for those rights in the future. However, Biden has been hesitant to criticise the filibuster too heavily ahead of the midterm elections.

Democrats were angered by a Reuters report that Biden was unlikely to move forward with bolder steps to protect abortion, which the president worried could undermine support for the Supreme Court and polarise the country. Critics have countered that with conservatives mounting a full-fledged assault on abortion rights, urgency is justified.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies