President Biden, in a fiery speech Tuesday in Atlanta, called for changing Senate rules in order to pass voting rights protections, going further than he has before in an effort to unify Senate Democrats around what he framed as an existential issue for the country.
Biden, whose support for the legislative filibuster has softened in recent months, endorsed changing the rule that allows the minority party to block any bill that doesn’t receive 60 votes.
Lamenting that the Senate where he served 36 years “has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden said that if Republicans continue to block debate on two voting rights bills, “we have no option but to change the Senate rules … whichever way they need to be changed.
Decrying a spate of new restrictive voting laws Republicans enacted last year in 19 states, including Georgia, Biden blasted Republicans still in thrall to a “defeated former president” and his effort “to disenfranchise anyone who votes against him.” His impassioned case for action to protect voting rights was about appeasing party activists as well as securing the necessary votes in Washington.
“As an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” Biden said during a speech at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, a consortium of four historically Black colleges and universities. “Let the majority prevail.”
Noting the difficulty of passing legislation out of an evenly divided Senate — “we have 51 presidents,” he quipped — Biden urged a small group of holdouts within his own party to consider how their position on this civil rights issue may define their legacy. Biden asked every American elected official: Would you rather be on Dr. King’s side or George Wallace’s? “The side or Bull Connor or John Lewis?” The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
The Senate, which Democrats control based on Vice President Kamala Harris‘ ability to cast a tiebreaking 51st vote, is poised this week to consider two Democratic measures, previously blocked in the chamber, that aim to defang many of the new voting laws in GOP-led states.
Harris, speaking ahead of Biden, invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words of decades ago warning against complacency in the face partisan voting restrictions. She stated that although anti-voter laws are not new to the United States, we should not be fooled into believing they are. “We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it more difficult for students to vote is normal.”
Republican senators, she continued, have “exploited arcane rules to block [Democratic voting] bills,” rebutting GOP claims of precedent around the filibuster by asserting that “nowhere does the Constitution give a minority the right to unilaterally block legislation.
“The Senate must act,” she continued. “We cannot tell [future generations] that we let a Senate rule stand in the way of our most fundamental freedom.”
The speeches are the sort of energetic, full-throated push for action on the issue of voting rights that many activists have been waiting for since Biden was inaugurated. Many were dismayed by the fact that the president prioritised a bipartisan infrastructure bill and an now-stalled effort in order to improve the social safety net over voter rights. They decided not to attend the speech, and stated they will not be satisfied with words alone.
“It sets a serious precedent that at the end of the day, when there are people that are coming after your base of voters, right, and you’re stringing it out, and you’re not reacting,” LaTosha Brown, a Georgia-based advocate and cofounder of Black Voters Matter, said on a call with reporters Monday.
“We don’t need another speech. Cliff Albright, executive director at the Black Voters Matter Fund, stated that what we really need is a plan.
Martin Luther King III, the son of the iconic civil rights leader, met with Biden and Harris on Tuesday, and said in an earlier statement that he understood the frustration of activists choosing not to attend but remained hopeful a push by the White House could lead to action. King stated that “We have seen the results of President Biden using the full weight and power of his office to deliver bridges. Now we need to see the same thing for voting rights.”
Although Biden’s shift on the filibuster reflects the new consensus among Senate Democrats, he still doesn’t have the necessary votes. Changing the rule itself in order to pass voting rights legislation requires the support of all 50 Democratic senators. Sens. Both Joe Manchin III from West Virginia and Kyrsten Snema of Arizona said that they opposed the change.
Thus far, Manchin has shown himself to be impervious to pressure from the White House, if not prickly about it. After the White House issued a statement in which it cited Manchin’s opposition to a major part of its legislative agenda as the primary reason that a vote on the bill was delayed, Biden blindsided him by going on TV to declare that he had voted against the $1.8-trillion “Build Back Better”, a package of tax credits for working families and other benefits.
The setback for Biden’s social spending bill, his administration’s focus in the final months of 2021, explains at least in part why the White House is shifting voting rights to the front burner. But altering the filibuster rule is an even heavier political lift than Build Back Better, which Democrats had hoped to pass with 50 votes through the process of budget reconciliation.
Shortly before Biden’s speech, Manchin continued to throw cold water on the president’s push. In a short comment to reporters, he stated that “we need to make the place more efficient.” “But getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better.”
Manchin has tried to win Republican backing for a compromise voting rights proposal, so far without success.
Meanwhile, Democrats are set to consider two bills that have already been approved by the House. The Freedom to Vote Act would end state efforts to limit mail-in and absente voting. It would also make election day a holiday and stop partisan gerrymandering which has drawn congressional districts in a manner that weakens minority votes. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore anti-discrimination components of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, arguing that voting rights were now firmly guaranteed, struck down in 2013.
Before delivering their remarks, Biden and Harris, who rarely travel together outside of Washington, visited the crypt of the Rev. King and Coretta Scott King, King’s wife. They stopped by the Ebenezer Baptist Church to pay respects to Martin Luther King Jr., and the late Democratic Rep. John Lewis (the civil rights hero and Georgia congressman), who were both eulogized. Upon entering, Biden lowered his face mask to offer a message to voting rights activists: “Keep the faith.”
Accompanying them was Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, whose election in one of two runoffs there last January delivered Democrats their 50-seat majority. Biden must run for reelection for the full six-year term. He is a target of Republicans and depends on high turnout from Black voters.
In 2020, Biden won Georgia by just 11,779 votes, a margin that held despite then-President Trump’s effort to pressure the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, to overturn the result. Raffensperger, a Republican remained firm in the face Trump’s false claims about voter fraud following an increase in mail-voting.
But after Biden assumed the presidency, Georgia lawmakers passed one of the country’s strictest new laws curtailing voting rights: making absentee voting more complicated, limiting the availability of ballot drop boxes, even making it a crime to distribute water to people waiting in line outside polling places.
On Tuesday, Raffensperger held a news conference to criticize Biden and Democrats for what he called “an attempt to weaken election security under the guise of voting rights.” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel echoed that position in a statement, dismissing Biden and Harris’ remarks as “fake hysteria.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said that he told Biden it had been a “monumental talk” even though it came later than he would have liked. The civil rights leader said, “Better late than ever,” and that it was now up to the lawmakers to take action.
“For Democrats to not stand up and support the sitting Democratic president will show that they have betrayed their party and the American people,” he said, “and their legacies will be forever tainted.”