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Democrats Say The Fight To Abolish The Filibuster Is About Protecting Civil Rights

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Voting rights, police reform, climate change - that's virtually the entire Biden agenda. And that is what some Democrats say will be abandoned if the Senate does not end the filibuster. They say the fight is about protecting civil rights and the promises Democrats made to voters, especially Black voters who helped deliver the White House and control of the Senate to Democrats. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has the story.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Voters who were energized by a push for racial justice last year say Republicans are using the filibuster to repeat an ugly history of repressing civil rights with a procedural blockade in the Senate.

RASHAD ROBINSON: The question will be, for Democrats who were powered into office on the strengths of Black and brown voters - what they will actually do to make sure racial justice can actually rule when it comes to policies.

SNELL: That's Rashad Robinson. He's the president of Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy group. He says moves to restrict voting access in states like Georgia have elevated the filibuster fight as Democrats try to pass federal voting protections. Senate Republicans are threatening to filibuster that legislation, requiring 60 votes for it to pass. For many Black Democrats, like House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, that threat recalls a history of senators using the filibuster to block anti-lynching legislation and keep Jim Crow laws alive.

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JIM CLYBURN: Their efforts are designed to gain power for their party by suppressing political participation by minorities.

SNELL: Former President Obama opened the door to ending the filibuster during his speech at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis, calling it a Jim-Crow-era relic. Democratic strategist Joel Payne says that phrase has been a rallying cry.

JOEL PAYNE: I can tell you it is a message that has more connectivity.

SNELL: Obama's language has been adopted by activists and elected Democrats all the way up to President Joe Biden. Payne says the campaign against the filibuster is transforming from a technical argument into a tangible political demand to deliver things like voting protections and pocketbook issues like a $15 minimum wage.

PAYNE: We could do all these things for middle-class people if only we could do it with the 50-vote threshold. I think it makes it real for people as opposed to just saying, hey, the Republicans are playing unfair.

SNELL: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted that the filibuster isn't racist or unfair. He says it wasn't created to block civil rights bills. Democrats also used it to block legislation when they were in the minority and increased the use of the filibuster in the Trump era.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Why is it all of a sudden a civil rights issue when it wasn't for them as recently as last year?

SNELL: Historian Kevin Kruse says it's true; the filibuster wasn't created to block civil rights bills. But that obscures the reality of how it was used.

KEVIN KRUSE: It's not that the filibuster itself is inherently racist, but it has been the favorite tool of racists.

SNELL: Kruse rejects the idea that the founders intended there to be a filibuster to keep the majority in check.

KRUSE: Defenders of the filibuster argue that it somehow protects minority rights. That's completely wrong. It obliterates the rights of minorities in the general public. That's why segregationists embraced the filibuster over and over again - is that it denied the rights of racial minorities.

SNELL: The shift in framing of the filibuster may be energizing activists and some within the Democratic Party, but the question remains if it will move filibuster defenders like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Senate Democrats would need to vote unanimously to get rid of the procedural blockade. Rashad Robinson says the decision to keep the filibuster or dismantle it to pass progressive policies could make a significant difference in maintaining the coalition that elected Democrats in 2020.

ROBINSON: We'll be watching. We'll be pushing, and we will be there in 2022 to fight. But the question will be, what will Democrats give us to fight for?

SNELL: Activists say they'll keep up the pressure until the filibuster falls.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.