AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today, in Atlanta, three former presidents, the speaker of the House and luminaries of the civil rights movement all paid their final respects to Congressman John Lewis. The memorial service, held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, was a celebration of Lewis' life and political career. Former President Barack Obama used his eulogy in part to call on Congress to build on Lewis' legacy by passing a renewed Voting Rights Act that would make Election Day a holiday, expand early voting and make voter registration automatic. He also called for changing one of the fundamental rules of the U.S. Senate.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.
CHANG: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is here with us to break down what all of this means. Hey, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: Hi. So you and I covered the Senate, and I feel like the debate about whether the filibuster should continue to exist has been such a long-running debate. But tell us...
SNELL: (Laughter) Yes.
CHANG: ...What is the significance here of former President Obama calling for an end to the filibuster as a way to honor Lewis?
SNELL: You know, it's not particularly surprising that politics would be part of honoring Lewis because his political actions were really at the core of his public life, so that politics became part of his eulogy made sense. But this certainly puts pressure on Democrats to embrace something that would likely, we said, fundamentally change the Senate but also the way legislation gets approved in Washington.
You know, the filibuster - for people who don't know - it's a Senate rule that gives the minority party a chance to kind of slow down or stop legislation they disagree with. The Senate requires 60 votes to pass most legislation, and that's a bar that's high enough to typically require that the parties have to work together to get most bills passed.
SNELL: But it's also stood in the way of the approval of controversial and partisan legislation. If Democrats take control of the Senate in November, the expectation is they would not have 60 votes needed to pass major Democratic priorities, and so this pressure from President Obama is about making sure that if they do that, if they have the White House, if they have the Senate, that they can pass some priorities that have been on the long list for Democrats for a long time.
CHANG: Well, how is Joe Biden - I mean, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president - how is he responding to this pressure?
SNELL: Yeah. Well, we reached out to Joe Biden's campaign, and a spokesman said - you know, they didn't really directly respond to questions about the filibuster. Instead, they called on Republicans to pass a renewed Voting Rights Act named in Lewis' honor. But this endorsement from former President Obama will certainly rev up those people in the party who say it's imperative that those old rules go out the window to make room for those progressive policies. I think it's really notable that Sen. Bernie Sanders is now backing the idea, though he wasn't always onboard with this.
SNELL: Yeah. Progressives say it's the only way to get things like climate legislation and new health care bills through. But not all Democrats agree. They worry that even if they win control of the White House and the Senate, that their majorities aren't permanent, and they could be on the bad end of this in the future. Critics say it could lead to huge partisan swings from administration to administration, and that's something Biden is acutely aware of because, as we know, he is someone who served in the Senate for decades.
CHANG: Exactly. Well, I mean, eliminating the filibuster is something that Republican leaders have called dangerous. So how are they responding?
SNELL: Yeah, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked about this just about a month ago, and he said that anytime you start fiddling around with the rules in the Senate, you need to put yourself in the other person's shoes and imagine might - what might happen to you if the shoe's on the other foot (laughter).
SNELL: One example of the long-term consequences is that Republicans have taken advantage of a rules change for federal judges that was made by former Democratic leader Harry Reid and that used to approve a record number of new judges, and they used that as an example of what Democrats might not want to see have - see happen in the future.
CHANG: That is NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.