Biden Endorses Changing Senate Filibuster For Voting Rights

In a speech in Atlanta, the president said senators opposing the legislation were on the side of segregationists of the past.

President Joe Biden, in a speech Tuesday in Atlanta, directly challenged the “institution of the United States Senate” to support voting rights by backing two major pieces of legislation and the carving out of an exception to the Senate’s 60-vote requirement, going so far as to compare senators who opposed the legislation to the segregationists of the 1960s.

Coming a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Biden’s speech at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on Tuesday afternoon served as a follow-up to a speech he delivered last week on the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot. He argued that the two pieces of legislation ― the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act ― are critical to ensure that the turmoil of Jan. 6, 2021, leads to a revival of American democracy rather than its decline.

“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden said. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”

Biden’s rhetoric was a marked escalation from his previous pleading to pass the legislation.

“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress over the last two months,” the president told the crowd of mostly students. “I’m tired of being quiet.”

Biden, who served as a senator from 1973 to 2009, also argued that abuse of the filibuster ― the arcane rule that requires 60 senators’ votes for most legislation to pass – has harmed the Senate as an institution and that carving out an exception for voting rights is the best way to protect the reputation and functionality of Congress’ upper chamber.

Labeling himself an “institutionalist,” Biden lamented that the Senate was a “shell of its former self.”

President Joe Biden speaks about the constitutional right to vote at the Atlanta University Center Consortium in Georgia on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden speaks about the constitutional right to vote at the Atlanta University Center Consortium in Georgia on Tuesday.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Throughout his speech, Biden noted the historical importance of the effort to pass voting rights legislation in the coming weeks. In a pointed statement, he framed the choice facing Republican senators opposed to current voting rights bills, and Democratic senators wary of changing filibuster rules to pass them, as one that will land them among American history’s villains and heroes.

“How do you want to be remembered?” Biden asked. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? 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?”

The Senate is set to vote on both pieces of voting rights legislation this week. While all 50 Democrats are expected to support the legislation, Republicans are expected to remain unified in opposition and block consideration ― as they have the previous three times Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has attempted to call up the Freedom to Vote Act.

That unified GOP opposition will almost certainly lead to a vote on whether to significantly weaken the filibuster. But it appears unlikely Democrats will be able to corral the 50 votes necessary for a rule change. Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and other moderates are reluctant to change the body’s rules.

Manchin, who helped write the Freedom to Vote Act, detailed some changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules that he could support on Tuesday. But these changes would not likely provide a path for voting rights bills to pass on a majority vote. Manchin also remains opposed to changing Senate rules on a simple majority vote, instead preferring to require a two-thirds supermajority.

If Democrats fail to pass their voting rights legislation, the wave of voter suppression laws enacted by Republican-run state legislatures and inspired by Donald Trump’s election fraud lies will remain in effect. So will the redistricting maps that reduce the political power of Black and Latino voters at both the national and state levels.

Biden pointed to the law passed by Georgia Republicans as a reason why voting rights legislation is necessary, highlighting how the GOP-controlled state legislature made it harder to vote after Democrats won the presidential race and two Senate seats there in 2020. That law not only placed new restrictions on voting and limited sites to cast or drop off ballots, but also empowered GOP partisans to purge local election boards to replace Democratic officials with Republicans.

Voting rights and filibuster reform advocates greeted Biden’s speech with praise and a call for his words to lead to action.

“President Biden gave a strong and inspiring speech on the urgent need to protect our democracy and reform the broken Senate rules ― and now we need these words to be followed by action and results,” Eli Zupnick, spokesman for the filibuster reform coalition Fix Our Senate, said in a statement.

“While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job. Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be THE priority,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson.

The Freedom to Vote Act is a compromise version of the Democratic Party’s sweeping voting rights legislation, and it would override many of the restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans since the 2020 election and mandate early voting and same-day voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore sections of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that conservatives on the Supreme Court voted to gut in 2013 and again in 2021.

Republicans, up to and including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, had long supported extensions to the Voting Rights Act but ceased doing so after the Supreme Court ruling.

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