WASHINGTON -- Former President Barack Obama's endorsement this week of ending the legislative filibuster energized progressive senators and groups who have championed the issue and converted one previous skeptic, Sen. Bernie Sanders. But will it provide enough momentum to topple a longtime Senate rule that many view as a pivotal check against partisan politics?
The answer to that question wasn't immediately clear in the hours after Obama's remarks at Rep. John Lewis's funeral in Atlanta, where he said doing away with the 60-vote threshold for legislation may be necessary if Congress is ever going to finish Lewis' work on voting rights. With the notable exception of Sanders, most of those who celebrated Obama's comments had already called for such a rule change.
And the true impact of Obama's surprise endorsement may not become clear until after the November election. Discussion of further erasing the 60-vote filibuster for legislation, which both Democratic and Republican Senate majorities have eliminated for executive and judicial nominations, will be a moot point if Democrats don't regain control of the Senate. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear there are no circumstances under which he would entertain a move to end the legislative filibuster.
But Obama's framing of the matter as an equal rights issue -- announced at the funeral of a beloved civil rights activist at a time when a new generation of Black voices is writing another chapter in the fight for racial justice -- could be a game changer if Democrats prevail in November.
Obama, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, brought up the filibuster as he argued that Congress should honor Lewis by updating the 1965 Voting Rights Act to restore parts of the law the Supreme Court struck down and by pushing further overhauls.
His suggestions to Congress included making voter registration automatic, expanding polling places and early voting, establishing Election Day as a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering. He also called for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico to be granted statehood so that they can be equally represented in Congress.
"And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster -- another Jim Crow relic -- in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do," Obama said.
The Democrat-led House has passed bills to make most of the changes Obama has called for, but those measures have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and sought to be the party's presidential nomination, seemed convinced by Obama's argument. He had resisted calls to end the filibuster during the presidential campaign despite other progressive candidates, most notably Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, endorsing the idea.
"President Obama is absolutely right," Sanders said in a statement Thursday. "It is an outrage that modern-day poll taxes, gerrymandering, I.D. requirements, and other forms of voter suppression still exist today. We must pass a comprehensive agenda to guarantee the rights and dignity of everyone in this country. And that means, among other things, reauthorizing and expanding the Voting Rights Act, for which Congressman John Lewis put his life on the line. As President Obama said, if that requires us to eliminate the filibuster, then that is what we must do."