U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were in the southern state of Georgia on Tuesday to promote voting rights legislation that would greatly expand federal influence over elections.
The two bills are a top priority for many Democrats but have stalled in the Senate because of Republican opposition.
“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, invoking the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump attempting to overturn Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.
With only 50 Democratic votes in the 100-seat Senate and no Republican ones, Biden threw his support behind the so-called filibuster carve-out: a one-time change in filibuster rules to pass the two voting rights bills.
The filibuster is a Senate tradition that allows the minority party to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote. A filibuster carve-out would allow Senate Democrats to pass legislation with a simple majority with Harris as the tiebreaker.
“Today I’m making it clear. To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights,” Biden said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will force a vote on changing those Senate rules no later than January 17, the day Americans commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, lambasted the move.
“The Senate Democratic leader is trying to bully his own members into breaking their word, breaking the Senate, and silencing the voices of millions of citizens. So that one political party can take over our nation’s elections from the top down,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
McConnell also blasted Biden’s rhetoric on voting rights.
“A sitting president of the United States who pledged to lower the temperature and unite America now invokes the brutal racial hatred of Jim Crow segregation to smear states whose new voting laws are more accessible than in his home state of Delaware,” McConnell said.
Republicans vs. Democrats on voting rights
In the American federal system, rules on who can vote, how, when and where they can vote and how the votes are counted are determined at the state level. In general, Democrats want to make it easier for everyone to vote because a larger pool of voters tends to yield more Democratic votes. Republicans tend to support higher barriers to voting, focusing on voter identification to protect against fraud.
Data from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School show that in the last year at least 19 Republican-controlled states have passed 34 laws restricting access to voting.
The two bills Biden is advocating include the Freedom to Vote Act, which would, among other provisions, reduce the impact of Republican controlled state-led efforts to restrict voting and stop gerrymandering, the process in which state legislators redraw districts in a way that advocates say favors one party or class. The second is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore certain anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling.
The prospects of passing the bills are dim.
“It is hard to pass something, to say we’re going to standardize things across the country in a way that really only one party is for,” said John Fortier, a senior fellow focusing on elections at the American Enterprise Institute.
Republicans in Congress have uniformly opposed the measures, contending that each of the 50 U.S. states should continue to set its own rules, including voting hours, how many days of early voting should be allowed before the traditional election day and the extent to which mail-in balloting is allowed.
Along with Biden’s Build Back Better, the $2 trillion social spending and climate change bill still stuck at the Senate, Democrats and the White House say passing voting rights legislation is a top priority.
“Right now, Democrats are so worried about the prospects of what could happen without essentially nationalizing voting rights issues, that I think they’re viewing this as, ‘We have to do this, otherwise we’ve lost everything else,'” said David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University specializing in election law.
That may explain why Biden’s speech referred heavily to January 6 and “the Big Lie” — the baseless claim that Trump won the 2020 election — as a powerful argument to change the filibuster rules and pass voting rights measures.
Think of the scenes at the Capitol that day as the equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters being beaten as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, images that were crucial to passing voting rights legislation in the 1960s, Schultz said.
“Biden needs an image to win over the public and Congress to support his legislation,” he added.
‘The Big Lie’
While Democrats routinely criticize Trump and his Republican allies for what they characterize as “the Big Lie,” McConnell has attacked Democrats over what he called “the left’s Big Lie” — the belief that “there is some evil anti-voting conspiracy sweeping America.”
In the 2020 election, Biden won some states where voting days were added, voting hours were extended and mail-in balloting was expanded to reduce the need for voters to go to polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation pushed by Democrats aims to codify many of those changes for future elections, including the 2022 elections in November, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and about a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs. Numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures in the past year have curtailed many of the changes enacted for the 2020 election, fearing that Democrats would gain a permanent electoral advantage if the rules were left in place.
At least two Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, remain opposed to changing the legislative filibuster rule, even for voting rights measures.
“Unless they’ve changed their minds, unless the speech and other things going around change their minds, then it’s going to be almost impossible to pass this set of legislation at the federal level,” Fortier said.
Biden, in his close to 40 years in the Senate, has resisted changes to the filibuster but now believes change is necessary.
“The president is coming to the realization right now that this is not the same Senate that he was in 20, 30 years ago where compromise was possible,” Schultz said.
VOA’s Anita Powell contributed to this report.