President Joe Biden delivered a major speech in Atlanta advocating for voting rights. He and Vice President Harris went to a highly symbolic location – Atlanta, Ga., the state that saw close Democratic wins in the 2020 cycle that gave the party the White House and the Senate, and the state where Republicans responded by passing voting restrictions. And as Biden noted, it’s the cradle of the civil rights movement. As he said, he and Harris visited Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave before delivering their speeches. Biden made major news in the speech. He urged the Senate to change filibuster rules in order to pass two voting rights bills that are stalled in the Senate.
Congress working on voting rights legislation
The first is 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 second bill is the Freedom to Vote Act. Now, that’s a much broader bill, and it would create national rules for voting by mail, early voting, and impact other parts of the electoral process. And these are two pieces of legislation that have gone through the House and that have stalled in the Senate amid Republican opposition and the filibuster.
Now, recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed that he would bring these bills to the floor quickly. He has indicated that Senate action could come as soon as this week in an effort to counter these threats of voter suppression. I’ve been covering voting rights for a while now. When you ask about why the stakes are so high, I think back to the speech that the president gave last summer in Philadelphia where he described the fight against Republican-led restrictive voting laws in states, including Georgia, where he spoke today, as the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. And frankly, he’s been under a lot of pressure, not just from Democrats in Washington.
Biden changes tone on filibuster
One of the things that were notable for me – and Biden’s changing language on the filibuster was notable. But the other thing was, like, you know, over the last year, one of the challenges he had is that he was not exactly out there, you know, gathering support, building a drumbeat to get his stuff passed. Biden would give these speeches allegedly about passing Build Back Better. He mentioned it, like, two or three times, and that was it. He was forceful today. Biden said pass these bills. I’m tired of being quiet about this – you know, basically pounding the lectern, telling the Senate to do something.
What he seemed to be saying was – demanding that something be done and, not only that, saying, you need to pass these bills. You need to do whatever. Stop – you know, he stopped, you know, kind of toying around the idea of making changes to the filibuster and said outright, this has to happen. And I think part of it – you know, Vice President Harris, she spoke before Biden. She mentioned, like, the stakes of this moment and basically said this may be the last chance of this era because things could change.
President Biden open to whatever changes are needed to secure voting rights
You’re going to have an election in 2022, a midterm election. They don’t know that they’re going to keep the House or the Senate – definitely the House. Traditionally, you know, the president’s party has losses. And they’re holding on by very small margins in the House. There were a group of Georgia voting rights activists who actually decided to not attend the speech because they were skeptical of the White House’s approach to all of this.
So what I understand from my conversations with folks on the Hill, as well as some of the advocates that I talk to, is that discussions are kind of around two main alternatives. The first one is creating some sort of a carve-out that would simply exempt bills relating to voting rights like the ones we’ve been talking about from the 60-vote threshold needed to pass major legislation. And the second one is establishing what’s called a talking filibuster, kind of that old-school maneuver where senators would have to physically hold the floor to block a vote on legislation.
Now, of course, in his remarks today, President Biden said he would be open to whatever rules, changes it would take, whatever changes need to happen to make sure these bill lead to his desk. But those are kind of the two big buckets of thought that are going around right now. This is largely an intramural Democratic discussion right now. But, again, it’s a 50-50 Senate. So Democrats have the majority but really only because of that tie-breaking vote. How Republicans view this is important, and it is worth saying this conversation is happening because no Republican at the moment supports either of these bills.
Republicans allege this is a power grab from Democrats
Republicans are saying that this is a power grab from Democrats. And they are threatening that – if Democrats go ahead with this, that they will face serious consequences from Republicans, who, especially with such tight numbers in the Senate, can try to slow some things down. We should say that McConnell and Republicans have not been playing along with Democrats anyway. Like, I mean, like, that’s the fact – that the Senate has had a lot of issues before this. People would argue that some of the actions that McConnell has taken, like not loading on, you know, former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee – like, there are lots of things that have happened.
So I think one of the biggest things that struck me as I listened to the speech is just how aggressively both the president and the vice president raised the stakes in this debate, right? Vice President Harris made it clear that the country should not accept these kinds of restrictive voting laws like those that have passed in Georgia and elsewhere as a new normal. President Biden compared some of the things that are happening right now to some of the abuses that happened during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As I think you pointed out, Scott, they point out that this is a once-in-a-century situation that the country sits in.
Biden made a multigenerational argument
And the other thing that I thought was very interesting about the way, in particular, President Biden talked about this is he made a multiracial, multigenerational argument. I think often when we talk about voting rights and even sometimes when we cover voting rights, we talk about this as an issue that only impacts Black and brown folks in this country. And while they are certainly disproportionately impacted by some of these restrictive laws – as are young people, as are poor people, as are disabled people – they made it clear that frankly, this is an issue that every person in America should care about because it is about the bedrock of democracy.
And I think he made the point that activists have been making at me for the past year now – that if the right to vote is not protected, it is the right that unlocks all other rights, as some might say. If that falls apart, everything falls apart.
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