Progressive lawmakers step up push to end filibuster
In this still from the movie classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Waashington," Jimmy Stewart plays a senator who conducts an actual talkathon filibuster in the days when a minority, when it wanted to hold up passage of a bill, had to talk and talk and talk. When they yielded the floor the filibuster was over. Restoring the talkathons is being looked at as a compromise by senators resistant to entirely eliminating the filibuster. |

WASHINGTON—Just after 10 a.m, on Dec. 10, 2010, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., got up on the Senate floor to talk…and talk…and talk…and talk some more.

And he didn’t sit down for eight and a half hours.

Sanders was employing a classic Senate device, the filibuster—which Republicans have long since abused—to halt legislation he didn’t like.

Sanders opposed a deal between Democratic President Barack Obama and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to extend the George W. Bush tax cuts in exchange for McConnell’s sign-off on some Democratic priorities. Obama’s bargainer? His VP, and a former longtime senator, Joe Biden.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledges to turn the Senate into a “scorched earth” body if Democrats eliminate the filibuster. | Andrew Harnik/AP

Sanders kept talking, but after he sat down, he lost the tax deal vote. Since Sanders’s talkathon, which was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster against corruption in the classic movie Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, two big things have changed.

One is that senators now don’t have to continuously keep talking to keep a filibuster going. All they have to do is to threaten a filibuster, and then muster 41 votes to keep the threat alive, effectively stopping legislation they don’t like, except for budget and tax bills.

The other is that once McConnell took over running the Senate after the 2010 GOP sweep, he abolished the filibuster by stages for Supreme Court justices, federal judges, Cabinet nominees, and federal agency chiefs. They need only 51 senators’ “yes” votes to pass. Everything else, save budget bills, is subject to a filibuster, and needs 60 votes. The Senate is tied 50-50. Neither party has commanded 60 in a decade.

Now a third big change looms on the horizon: Abolishing the filibuster altogether, and with it, yet another legacy of racism.

The filibuster became infamous as a method to preserve and protect white supremacy and segregation. Southern senators used filibusters for decades to defend Jim Crow and block civil rights laws.

The longest individual filibuster, by Dixiecrat Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1957, was a futile try to block that year’s relatively weak Civil Rights Act. He talked for almost 25 hours straight. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had to twist arms to overcome filibusters against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Then, filibusters were real and rare. Not now. The result has been strangulation of democracy: In the GOP-run Senate during the last two years, there were more than 250 threatened filibusters.

Even Biden sees the problem

Even Biden, who made the Senate his career, sees the problem.  “It almost is getting to the point where there’s—you know, democracy’s having a hard time functioning,” due to filibusters, he told ABC interviewer George Stephanopoulos on March 16.

But McConnell schemes to keep the filibuster. And if it goes to the political graveyard, the Kentuckian threatens to make the Senate a “scorched earth” legislative body where nothing at all gets done. In the meantime, the filibuster lurks against:

  • HR1, the comprehensive For The People Act, the voting rights bill. The filibuster threat comes from the radical right majority within the Senate’s 50 Republicans.
  • The Protect The Right To Organize Act, the most wide-ranging pro-worker rewrite of U.S. labor law since the original Wagner Act of 1935. Filibuster threat from the GOP.
  • Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, from its current $7.25, in effect for the last 12 years. Filibuster threat from the GOP.
  • The John R. Lewis Act, HR4, restoring teeth to the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court’s GOP-named majority gutted several years ago. Filibuster threat from the GOP.
  • The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bans job discrimination against LGBTQ people. Filibuster threat from the GOP.
  • The Dream Act, writing into law that the “Dreamers”—the 700,000-plus undocumented people brought to the U.S. as young children—can stay here. Filibuster threat from the GOP.

And on and on and on.

Now there’s a countervailing force. Since Sanders’s talkathon, and an even longer one 2-1/2 years later by right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who used the filibuster to shut the government down, there’s been a mounting campaign to abolish the filibuster for good.

Abolition has Sanders’s support. It also has Obama’s. It’s also the subject of campaigning by groups ranging from the AFL-CIO to the CPUSA.  It doesn’t have Biden’s backing–yet.

“Given the enormous crises facing this country and the desperation of working families, we have got to as soon as possible end the filibuster,” Sanders said just before debate last month on now-President Biden’s American Rescue Act—minus the hike in the minimum wage. “We cannot have a minority of members define what the American people want.”

Progressives speak out

Progressive groups are also outspoken in abolishing the filibuster, aka “extended debate,” which doesn’t exist anymore, anyway—just the threat of it.

“Tell your senator: Reform the Jim Crow Filibuster,” CPUSA said at the top of an electronic contact form posted on its website on Feb. 18. “Legislators and local election officials in 28 states” are trying to “force through policies that disproportionately limit Black voters’ access to the ballot.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would not only restore federal oversight when state legislatures try to enact racist voting laws, but it would also ensure no state can make any drastic change to the way they conduct elections without considering how those changes would impact Black voters.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders led a talkathon filibuster against a GOP tax bill during the Obama years. | Seth Wenig/AP

“Because of the filibuster, Senate Republicans have the power to block the John Lewis Voting Rights Act bill and every other bill that could strengthen our democracy. Send a message to your senator that they should get rid of the filibuster and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act immediately.”

“The very survival of our democratic republic is at stake,” the AFL-CIO Executive Council said on March 11. “Standing in its way is an archaic Senate procedure that allows the minority to block the majority: The filibuster. An artifact of Jim Crow. A creature of white supremacy. A procedure that was said to encourage robust debate but has turned into an instrument of government paralysis.”

The filibuster is “a tool used by those seeking to preserve the social, economic and political status quo, that the AFL-CIO has long opposed, as a matter of principle as undemocratic and rooted in racism.”

Other organizations are taking a similar tack. So are key senators, led by Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He called the filibuster “the death grip of democracy.”

“The filibuster is an anti-democratic tool that’s been used for years to hold back progress on civil and human rights. Mitch McConnell and the GOP are intent on keeping it that way so they can block all our priorities. Remember when McConnell called himself ‘The Grim Reaper of progressive legislation?” asked.

“It’s simply another form of minority rule–and as Republican policies become ever more unpopular, they’re going to be leaning on tactics like this even harder to retain their power. It’s time to stop them and build a democracy for the people.”

Durbin said senators should junk the filibuster, or if they don’t want to take such a drastic step, go back to forcing senators to speak the whole time. “No more mailing it in,” Durbin declared. Stand up and talk, and keep talking, he demanded.

That’s where Biden is right now, too.

“I don’t think you have to eliminate the filibuster,” he told Stephanopoulos. “You have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days…And that is that a filibuster–you had to stand up and command the floor. And you had to keep talkin’ along…Once you stopped talkin’, you lost that, and someone could move in and say, ‘I move the question,’” thus calling for a vote. “So you gotta work for the filibuster” by actually speaking, and speaking and speaking, just like Sanders did.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.