By Seung Min Kim and Amy B Wang,
ATLANTA — President Biden threw his full support Tuesday behind changing the Senate filibuster to ease passage of voting rights bills, using a major speech in Atlanta to endorse a move increasingly backed by Democrats and civil rights activists seeking momentum on what has been an intractable issue.
Biden, who was a senator for 36 years and a stalwart supporter of the chamber’s traditions, resisted such changes for most of his career. But a White House official said the president now believes a change is necessary to ensure that “this basic right is defended.”
“Sadly, the United States Senate, designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden said Tuesday. “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, debate them, vote. Let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
In his remarks, Biden cited the Jan. 6 insurrection — where a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to stop Biden’s electoral college win — as a moment in American history so stark that it ripped away the trivial from the essential.
“Today we come to Atlanta, the cradle of civil rights, to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy,” Biden said. “The right to vote and have that vote count, it is democracy’s threshold liberty. Without it, nothing is possible. But with it, anything is possible.”
Biden has endorsed a so-called “carve-out” before — that is, a limited rather than permanent change to the filibuster, to allow voting rights bills to advance. But Tuesday’s remarks were his most extensive on the issue and aimed at not only an audience of voters and disenchanted activists but at lawmakers who will determine the fate of such legislation.
“This matters to all of us. The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them, simple as that,” Biden said. “The facts won’t matter. Your vote won’t matter. They’ll just decide what they want and then do it. That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies. We must be vigilant.”
The Democratic efforts are focused on two bills: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the federal government’s authority to review certain state voting laws to prevent discrimination, and the Freedom to Vote Act, a broader bill that would create national rules for voting by mail, early voting and other parts of the electoral process.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to ultimately bring a package of rules changes to the floor before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On Tuesday, Schumer warned that the threats of voter suppression are not false, as Senate Republicans have claimed, but dangerous, and he indicated that Senate action could come as early as Wednesday.
“Failure is not an option for the democracy of America,” Schumer told reporters. “We’re running out of time because these [state] legislatures are passing terrible laws and our experts have told us moving by mid-January is about the latest we can go.”
At least two Democratic centrists — Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have resisted the changes, making the prospects uncertain at best for an alteration to the Senate rules, a shift that would require all 50 Democrats to be on board.
While Manchin has spent weeks in negotiations with fellow Democratic senators over possible rules changes, he told reporters Tuesday that he was simply not interested in changing the Senate’s rules on a party-line vote.
“We need some good rules changes, and we can do that together,” he said. “But you change the rules with two-thirds of the people that are present so it’s Democrats, Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better. Getting rid of the filibuster does not make it work better.”
Biden’s remarks are the latest move in an increasingly bitter partisan fight over voting. Democrats are angry at an array of voting restrictions imposed by GOP-led states, including Georgia, where Biden visited the crypt of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Tuesday before making his speech.
Republicans have made clear they will not take party in any effort to rewrite the Senate rules to pass the voting bills. At a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, more than a dozen Senate Republicans blasted efforts to change the filibuster. Several quoted Schumer’s own past remarks on the topic, including a 2005 comment that eliminating the rule would spell “doomsday for democracy.”
“Here we are today, with them eating their words,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “That’s hypocritical at the face of it.”
Several Democrats who signed a 2017 letter arguing for the preservation of the 60-vote threshold for legislation defended themselves Tuesday against accusations of hypocrisy, saying circumstances have changed amid Republican efforts to undermine voting rights across the country.
“Let me say that, as somebody who signed that at the time, we were not where we are today, in terms of this continual abuse, really a tyranny of the minority using the filibuster, and on top of that, a violent attempt to overthrow an election,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. “So this has changed. I care passionately about climate change and about other issues, but this is fundamentally about whether or not people in our country will have the freedom to vote and whether or not we’ll have a democracy.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said he believed the upcoming vote would be the most important one he takes in his life.
“It’s ironic in the extreme to enshrine the principle of bipartisanship here in the Senate to the extent that we can’t repair damage done to the democracy by 100-percent partisan legislatures around the” country, King said. “In other words, if bipartisanship is a principle here in Washington, it ought to be in Atlanta and Concord and the other state capitals in the country.”
Reflecting the lack of a clear path forward, neither Schumer nor Democrats leading the rules-change discussions have released a consensus proposal as the promised rules vote approaches — causing some irritation among rank-and-file senators.
Discussions have surrounded two main alternatives: creating a “carve-out” that would simply exempt voting-rights legislation from the 60-vote threshold, or establishing a so-called “talking filibuster,” which would require senators to physically hold the floor to block a vote on legislation.
Still, party leaders have essentially concluded that the fight is worth it even if it falls short.
Biden on Tuesday called on Congress to pass both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act immediately.
“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months. I’m tired of being quiet,” Biden said, striking the lectern with his palm.
Several Democrats joined Biden, including the state’s two Democratic senators, Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who helped clinch a majority for the Senate in a pair of runoff elections last January. Also joining Biden were members of the Congressional Black Caucus and senators who have led talks in drafting voting legislation and rules changes to ease passage of those bills.
But notably absent was Stacey Abrams, who has been at the forefront of registering voters in Georgia and is running for governor. Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Abrams, said she “has a conflict, expressed her support and will continue to.”
Before leaving Washington earlier Tuesday, Biden dismissed the notion of any friction between him and Abrams, telling reporters he was insulted by the question. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden and Abrams held a “warm” phone call earlier Tuesday. She did not comment further on the alleged scheduling mishap.
Still, a number of civil rights groups are planning boycotts of Biden and Vice President Harris’s visit, expressing impatience with the lack of action from Washington. Psaki declined to comment on the protests, noting that Biden was not only flying with a “full plane of congressional leaders and advocates for voting rights,” but also meeting with an array of civil rights leaders once he lands in Georgia.
Republicans, many embracing the discredited notion that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election, argue that the changes are needed to prevent fraud and restore faith in the vote.
Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on Tuesday released a statement ahead of Biden’s speech, accusing Democrats of “blatant power-grabs designed to rig the game.”
“No number of lies told or fake hysteria pushed today justify Democrats’ agenda to break the Senate and destroy American elections,” McDaniel said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday renewed a threat to grind the Senate to a halt using time-consuming procedural maneuvers if Democrats unilaterally change the rules to pass the voting bills.
“If the Democratic leader tries to shut millions of Americans and entire states out of the business of governing, the operations of this body will change — oh, yes, that much is true,” he said. “But not in ways that reward the rule-breakers, not in ways that advantage this president, this majority, or their party. I guarantee it.”
Five times since the Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965, Republicans have voted to reauthorize it, but GOP support for key enforcement provisions has all but evaporated since the Supreme Court gutted them in recent decisions. Only Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted with Democrats last year to advance the John Lewis bill, which would restore federal oversight of election laws in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.
The Freedom to Vote Act, meanwhile, has garnered no Republican support whatsoever. It not only sets a single nationwide minimum standard for early voting and vote-by-mail in a bid to reverse some of the new state-level GOP laws but also aims to overhaul a wide range of election and campaign-finance practices. States with a voter ID requirement, for instance, would be required to accept a wider range of documents than most currently do, such as student and employer IDs, utility bills or health insurance cards.
The Senate is split 50-50 between the parties, with Harris able to cast tiebreaking votes. Republicans are almost entirely unified in opposition to the voting rights measures, making them impossible to pass in a chamber where the filibuster means a 60-vote margin is required to approve most bills.
Biden began turning his attention to voting rights in earnest after it became clear late last year that his Build Back Better package of social spending was foundering in Congress. Voting rights is a critical issue for important Democratic constituencies, including African Americans and progressives, and many Democrats believe it is crucial for the party’s future.
Biden’s speech at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College in Atlanta follows his remarks Thursday on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The president’s aides said Tuesday’s remarks in a sense mark a second chapter after his forceful comments and rebuke of Trump in last week’s address.
Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.