By David Morgan and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden on Tuesday backed reforming, rather than scrapping, the filibuster after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats that ending the long-standing Senate procedure that can block partisan legislation would bring the Democratic president's agenda to a standstill.
Top Democrats, including the two highest-ranking party members in the Senate, have stepped up rhetoric in recent days about the future of the filibuster, which requires support from 60 of the chamber's 100 members to pass most legislation -- effectively giving power to the minority party in a closely-divided chamber.
The parliamentary custom has long been seen as a mechanism requiring bipartisan consensus that distinguishes the Senate from the House of Representatives, where only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation. But with the Senate riven by a rancorous partisan divide, consensus has become an increasingly elusive goal.
With the current Senate split 50-50, Democrats have said they may need to do away with the filibuster to pass Biden's priorities, including a bill already approved by the House of Representatives intended to facilitate voting in elections.
Biden, who served 36 years in the U.S. Senate, told ABC News he supported changing the Senate’s filibuster rule back to requiring that senators talk continuously on the chamber's floor to hold up a bill, marking the first time he has endorsed reforming the procedure.
Biden said he did not think the filibuster needed to be eliminated, but favored returning it to "what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days. You had to stand up and command the floor. You had to keep talking."
Asked if he was for bringing back the "talking filibuster," Biden said, "I am. That's what it was supposed to be."
Earlier this month, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki had said that Biden did not want to make changes to Senate filibuster rules.
"ERASE EVERY LIBERAL CHANGE"
McConnell, a Republican, speaking on the Senate floor, mapped out dire consequences if Democrats sought to remove the filibuster completely.
"This chaos would not open up an express lane to liberal change. It would not open up an express lane for the Biden presidency to speed into the history books. The Senate would be more like a 100-car pileup. Nothing moving," McConnell said.
"Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin ... to imagine what a completely scorched-earth-Senate would look like," he added, saying Republicans would require votes on all parliamentary moves, drastically slowing the pace of business.
McConnell also warned that Democrats would face a starkly conservative agenda on labor, energy, abortion rights, border security and gun ownership in 2022, if Republicans regained the majority in the Senate with the filibuster no longer in place.
"We wouldn’t just erase every liberal change that hurt the country. We’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero – zero - input from the other side,” he said.
McConnell spoke a day after Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, said in a floor speech that the filibuster was making a "mockery" of democracy and that Republicans were misusing it to block urgent legislation.
Two moderate Senate Democrats - Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin - have opposed doing away with the filibuster, though Manchin has suggested changing the filibuster rule to make the parliamentary maneuver more "painful."
McConnell said those lawmakers were under pressure from Durbin and others to reverse course.
But Manchin reaffirmed his position in comments that could allay the Republican's concerns. "The bottom line is, you can't get rid of the filibuster," he told reporters.
On Tuesday, Durbin acknowledged that McConnell's warning about the Senate's grinding to a halt was not an idle one. "We've already seen him do that. He's proven he can do it and he'll do it again," Durbin said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday said Democrats hoped to work with Republicans to move forward legislation intended to improve voter participation and renew U.S. infrastructure. But he warned that Democrats were determined to overcome Republican opposition.
(Reporting by David Morgan and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)