Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois on Monday torched the legislative filibuster as a “weapon of mass obstruction” in a speech on the floor of the upper chamber, adding his name to the growing list of Democrats demanding elimination of—or, at the very least, significant changes to—the 60-vote rule standing in the way of a voting rights expansion, immigration reform, climate action, and other top priorities.
“As the highest-ranking Senate leader to come out against the filibuster, Senator Durbin’s speech represents a major moment in the fight for reform.”
—Adam Jentleson, Battle Born Collective
“Today, nearly 65 years after Strom Thurmond’s marathon defense of Jim Crow, the filibuster is still making a mockery of American democracy,” said Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate. “The filibuster is still being misused by some senators to block legislation urgently needed and supported by strong majorities of the American people. This is what hitting legislative rock bottom looks like. Today’s filibusters have turned the world’s most deliberative body into one of the world’s most ineffectual bodies.”
The Illinois Democrat went on to voice support for “any proposal that ends the misuse of the filibuster,” which in its current form takes virtually no effort to deploy beyond sending an email. The rule requires 60 votes to end debate on most legislation, giving the minority party significant power to obstruct the majority, particularly in a narrowly divided Senate.
“I have been long open to changing the Senate’s rules to restore the ‘standing filibuster,'” said Durbin, adding that “if a senator insists on blocking the will of the Senate,” they “should have to pay some minimal price of being present.”
“No more phoning it in,” Durbin added. “It’s time to change the Senate rules and stop holding this Senate hostage. We cannot allow continued misuse of arcane rules to block the will of the American people. I urge my colleagues to defend American democracy by making the changes needed.”
Watch the full speech:
Durbin’s condemnation of the modern filibuster came amid what has been described as a “tremendous sea change” on the rule within the Senate Democratic caucus. Just four years ago, 31 Senate Democrats signed on to a bipartisan letter urging the chamber’s leadership to preserve the filibuster, which in recent years was eliminated for federal judicial nominees, Cabinet appointments, and Supreme Court picks.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a longtime proponent of filibuster reform, told NBC News over the weekend that he has been “gauging interest” among Democratic senators in reviving the talking filibuster, an idea that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) floated in an interview last week.
“Maybe it has to be more painful, maybe you have to stand there,” said Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a staunch opponent of eliminating the filibuster. “There’s things we can talk about.”
Eliminating or altering the filibuster would require the support of the entire Senate Democratic caucus plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
Despite mounting support for filibuster reform among Senate Democrats, President Joe Biden continues to oppose any changes to the rule. “He believes that with the current structure that he can work with Democrats and Republicans to get work and business done,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing last week.
Adam Jentleson, executive director of the Battle Born Collective and previously an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)—who in 2013 spearheaded the elimination of the filibuster for most presidential nominees—applauded Durbin for using “his powerful platform to underscore the urgent need for filibuster reform.”
“As the highest-ranking Senate leader to come out against the filibuster, Senator Durbin’s speech represents a major moment in the fight for reform,” Jentleson said in a statement Monday. “In his remarks, Sen. Durbin detailed the filibuster’s racist origins, highlighted the true intentions of the framers, and put in stark relief how the Jim Crow filibuster has restricted progress in the modern Senate.”
“In the coming weeks,” Jentleson added, “Senate Democrats will be faced with the decision to either follow through on promises they campaigned and won on, or continue to allow an archaic rule to block all progress. The choice should be clear.”