WASHINGTON – President Biden approved changing Senate rules to pass new voting rights legislation during a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, warning of a serious threat to American democracy if lawmakers do not act to “protect the heart and soul” of the country.
Mr Biden did not go so far as to call for the large-scale elimination of filibuster, a Senate tradition that allows the minority party to block legislation that does not garner 60 votes, but said he supported its “elimination” in the case of voting rights legislation. Such a change in Senate procedures is unlikely to win the support of the 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats, which is necessary to overcome universal Republican opposition.
Mr Biden, a former senator and institutionalist who has long hesitated to reduce filibustering, said such senatorial traditions had been “abused”.
“Unfortunately, the United States Senate, designed to be the world’s largest deliberative body, has become a shell of itself,” Biden said.
In an at times moving address to a consortium of four historically black colleges and universities, Mr. Biden set out the principles he wished to be associated with – providing access to the ballot, promoting racial equality and keeping “the promise of the United Nations. ‘America alive’ – and made it clear that, winner or loser, he wanted to be on the right side of history.
“I ask all the elected Americans: How do you want to be remembered? Mr. Biden said.
“Do you want to be on Dr. King’s side or George Wallace’s side?” Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? He asked, drawing a sharp line between the men who fought for civil rights and others who fought to deny them, comparisons that at times left the crowd jolted.
To equate opponents of Senate rule changes with slave owners and segregationists is a political gamble for Mr Biden, whose visit to Georgia was intended to boost a Democrat-led effort to pass new voting rights laws in the Senate 50-50 in the next few days.
A bill introduced by Democrats, the Freedom to Vote Act, would block efforts to restrict postal or postal voting, make Election Day a public holiday, and bar state lawmakers, among other provisions. to redesign constituencies in a way that activists say negates representation. to minority voters. Another, the John Lewis Advancement of Voting Rights Act, would restore anti-discrimination elements of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The reality remains: Even with Mr Biden’s new call for an obstruction exception, changing Senate rules would require support from across the Democratic caucus and Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote to break the tie and pass legislation.
Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both Democrats, have expressed strong public opposition to changing the filibuster rules. A handful of others have voiced concerns about the changes more quietly. Mr. Manchin noted On Tuesday, the Senate needs “good rule changes to make the place work better, but getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it run better.”
Republicans, who have sought to emphasize that Democrats have historically relied on filibuster protection when in the minority, have been more outspoken in their criticism.
“There is also a reasonable chance that Republicans will win both houses of Congress and that Donald Trump himself could be re-elected president in 2024,” said Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah. noted on the floor of the Senate Tuesday. “Have the Democrats thought about what it would mean to them, that the Democratic minority has no power? “
(From Mr. Biden comparing opponents of rule changes to segregationists, Mr. Romney added, “So much for the unification of the country and working across the aisle.”)
Still, in an effort to lobby, Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and majority leader, said Republicans may have until Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to drop their opposition to the debate and to votes on the issue, or face the prospect of an overhaul of the filibuster rules.
Mr Biden traveled to Georgia with a major piece of his agenda, a big social spending plan, at a standstill. The pivot to voting rights gives it a new topic to focus on, but it also risks falling behind on its promises.
But for the second time in two weeks, Mr Biden attacked former President Donald J. Trump, reminding Democrats of the stakes in the upcoming midterm elections.
“The goal of the former president and his allies is to deprive anyone who votes against them of the right to vote,” Biden said. “As simple as that.”
Mr Biden’s advisers have pledged he will continue to strongly support two voting rights bills aimed at pushing back a series of restrictive voting measures adopted by Republican-led state houses across the country .
Back in Washington, multiple proposals for finding ways to appease Mr. Manchin, Ms. Sinema and other possible holdouts are circulating, including restoring the “talking” obstruction by forcing lawmakers to speak up, at the same time. Mr. Smith’s manner; reduce the number of votes needed to break an obstruction; and completely limiting its use in certain circumstances.
But finding bipartisan courtesy this time around will be nearly impossible for Mr Biden, who has spent 36 years in the Senate and sees himself as a consensus builder. Republicans have argued that the bills would impede states’ right to conduct their own elections and that Democrats are using voting rights legislation to try to gain a partisan advantage.
Campaigners say these critics ignore glaring examples of voter suppression. Voting rights groups in Georgia have previously filed a federal lawsuit that accuses lawmakers of redesigning a congressional district to benefit Republican candidates and denying representation to black voters.
Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell promised a scorched earth response if Democrats tried to change the rule: “Since Senator Schumer is determined to try to break the Senate, Republicans will show how this reckless action would have consequences. immediate, ”McConnell said in a statement Monday.
Mr Biden’s visit to Georgia was also aimed at restoring his relations with some voting activists who are disappointed that he has exhausted his political capital in his first year in office on other efforts, including a bipartisan agreement. on infrastructure and a stalled social spending plan. Georgia, a state Mr Biden won with just 11,779 votes, has seen some of the most sweeping attempts by Republicans to assert partisan power in elections, particularly by restricting postal, absenteeism or advance voting. .
Mr Biden and Ms Harris leaned heavily on the power of symbolism as he visited the former district of Mr Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon for whom the legislation is named. Mr Lewis, the son of a sharecropper, was bloodied in the Jim Crow South while defending racial fairness and the right to vote.
The couple visited the crypt of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. They also visited the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr King and Mr Lewis praised. Senator Raphael Warnock, the state’s first black senator and a Democrat running for a full term this year after a second-round victory, is a senior pastor there.
Some activists offered moderate support ahead of the president’s speech, angered by what they called lack of attention as state-level restrictions take effect.
Bee Nguyen, state representative for Georgia and Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said she tried to stress in the White House that activists need to hear more than encouragement to simply organize the removal of voters, one of the strategies of officials in the Biden administration. encouraged in their engagement with activists.
“The burden should not be on the shoulders of black and brown Georgians just to exercise their right to vote,” Ms. Nguyen said. “If we can’t do that, it will be really hard to get out of what we are seeing. “
Stacey Abrams, a voting rights defender and Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, refused to attend the speech and her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, blamed a “conflict”. Two Democratic officials familiar with the planning said Ms Abrams decided not to go in part because she was not invited to comment. But Ms Groh-Wargo denied this and said in a brief interview on Tuesday night that there had been “no discussions” about a speaking slot. Democratic officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
A prominent family attended the event. Martin Luther King III, the living eldest son of the civil rights leader, and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, met privately with Mr Biden in Atlanta in front of the President and the King family, who have planned a series of marches to lobby on Democrats to pass the legislation, visited the crypt of the civil rights leader.
In a private meeting with the President, the Kings said in an interview that they mostly talked.
“We felt the president cited his negotiating pedigree as a senator” while talking about the importance of voting rights, Ms. King said. “We know he has the power and influence to do the same today as president. I must say that we will be watching closely.
In his speech, Biden said he wanted to “let the majority prevail.”
“And if this bare minimum is blocked,” he said, “we have no choice but to change the rules of the Senate, including getting rid of the filibuster.”
Earlier today, Mr Biden was on his way to Ebenezer Baptist Church when asked what he would say to campaigners who fear his membership in the Senate rule change is too small and too late.
“Keep the faith,” replied the president, before hiding in the church.
Nick corasaniti At New York, Carl hulse in Washington and Zolan Kanno-Youngs in Atlanta contributed reporting.