WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for a limited exception to the Senate filibuster in order to pass federal voting rights legislation, yielding to demands from Democrats and civil rights advocates to take a more aggressive stance on preserving ballot access.
In his most forceful plea yet for election reform, Biden endorsed altering the Senate rules “whichever way they need to be changed” to bypass Republican opposition to two voting-rights bills in the Senate. The president had initially resisted the rules change even as Republican-led states enacted a spate of new voting restrictions.
“Let the majority prevail,” he said at the Atlanta University Center Consortium on the grounds of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. “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, who described himself as an institutionalist, said he made the decision with careful deliberation to “protect our democracy.”
The speech in Georgia, which follows the president’s searing remarks on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, is part of a full-throated effort by Democrats to muscle the voting rights bills through Congress, as progressives and activists push the White House to be more aggressive on an issue they view as critical ahead of November’s midterm elections. It comes as Biden’s other major domestic priority, a sweeping climate change and social policy bill, has also stalled in the Senate.
Biden took direct aim at Republican senators for opposing the new voting protections.
“History has never been kind to those who’ve sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights,” Biden said, calling the upcoming Senate votes a “turning point” for the nation. “And it’s been less kind for those who side with election subversion.”
Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, had previously stopped short of throwing his weight behind a change to the chamber’s vaunted rules. The evenly divided Senate, which gives Democrats razor thin control with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking 51st vote, is expected to consider two voting protection bills in the coming days: the Freedom to Vote Act would set some minimum federal standards on early voting and vote by mail options, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the Justice Department’s authority to review election law changes in states with a history of discrimination.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has vowed to force a vote on changing the filibuster by Jan 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, should Republicans continue to oppose the bills.
Despite Biden’s endorsement and Democrats’ renewed push, the chances of passage are slim. Any change to the Senate rules would require all 50 Democrats to sign off, and at least two — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have opposed the idea.
Biden conceded that he faces an uphill battle to pass the voting rights bills given Republican opposition and resistance from some within his own party. But he said the risk of staying silent is greater.
“This is one of those defining moments,” Biden told reporters before leaving the White House Tuesday morning. “People are going to be judged, where were they before and where were they after the vote.”
Though Biden has made voting rights a pillar of his agenda, advocates have grown frustrated with the administration’s emphasis on infrastructure and the president’s social and climate spending package, as Republican state legislatures have moved to impose laws limiting ballot access over the last year, including in Georgia.
Nineteen Republican-led states passed 34 laws to restrict access to voting last year, fueled by former President Donald Trump and his supporters’ false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. There is no evidence of widespread voting irregularities, and courts have dismissed more than 60 GOP-led lawsuits alleging fraud.
Biden said the goal of the Republican-led voting laws is “to turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion.”
“The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them,” Biden said. “That is the kind of power you see in a totalitarian state – not in a democracy.”
Black Votes Matter and a coalition of other groups that support voting rights legislation skipped Tuesday’s speech after urging Biden not to bother visiting Georgia unless he has a concrete plan to pass the Senate bills.
Also absent from Biden’s speech was Stacey Abrams, a leading voting rights advocate who used her 2018 gubernatorial loss to Republican Brian Kemp to highlight the issue. An aide to Abrams cited a scheduling conflict. Abrams spoke to Biden Tuesday morning and welcomed him back to Georgia in a tweet.
Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden tasked with leading the administration’s voting rights effort, also delivered remarks, warning the country shouldn’t be deceived into thinking the new GOP-led state voter laws are normal.
“Over the past few years we have seen so many anti-voter laws that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws,” she said. “A danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal.”
Before their remarks, Biden and Harris placed a wreath at the crypt of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. The pair also visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was ordained and served as co-pastor until his assassination in 1968.
The King family, newly-elected Atlanta Mayor Andrew Dickens and a cadre of Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Reps. Sanford Bishop, Carolyn Bourdeaux, Hank Johnson, Lucy McBath and Nikema Williams, joined Biden for the speech.
Biden’s choice of Georgia for a major voting rights address is no accident. The state has a rich history entwined with the struggle for civil rights – one that activists warn is under assault. After Biden beat Trump in Georgia by less than 12,000 votes in 2020, the state became one of the first to put in place more restrictive voting laws.
Georgia was also the home of the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon for whom one of the voting rights bills now stalled in the Senate is named.
Contributing: Michael Collins and Matt Brown