Biden Taps Kamala Harris To Lead Push On Voting Rights

President Joe Biden on Tuesday placed Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of his administration’s efforts to pass voting rights legislation and promised to battle an “unprecedented assault on our democracy” from Republican-controlled state legislatures.

“We’re going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again,” Biden said in a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Black residents there. “I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal.”

Biden’s comments ― and his decision to hand Harris the high-profile task ― are likely to soothe but not totally satisfy voting rights activists, who have fretted about the administration’s dedication to passing H.R. 1, an omnibus law aimed at reforming American democracy, and the more narrowly targeted John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which aims to block state-level voter suppression efforts.

Republicans across the country, embracing former President Donald Trump’s escalation of long-standing GOP myths about voter fraud following the 2020 election, have introduced more than 300 bills aiming to restrict the right to vote. Democrats have argued that passage of H.R. 1 and the Voting Rights Act is essential to protecting the right to vote, but the legislation’s path forward in Congress remains murky at best. 

In a statement released after Biden’s speech, Harris promised to work with “voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide,” and to work with Congress “to help advance these bills.”

“Our Administration will not stand by when confronted with any effort that keeps Americans from voting,” Harris said.

In his speech, Biden directly noted the difficulty of passing such laws.

“I hear all the folks on TV, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’” he said. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with our Republican friends.”

Biden’s comments were likely referencing Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have both declared staunch opposition to weakening or eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to pass most legislation. Sinema supports H.R. 1, while Manchin does not.

Though the two are considered the most centrist Democrats in the Senate, both typically vote with their party.

Voting rights advocates, speaking on a conference call scheduled to discuss a Texas GOP proposal to limit voting access there, praised Biden’s selection of Harris as the point person on the issue but said the administration and congressional leaders needed to do more to pressure reluctant Democratic senators. 

“It’s a step forward,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “Any time you actually designate somebody in your administration to be the liaison, the czar, or whatever you want to call it, that’s a step in the right direction, because it is adding a level of responsibility and accountability, and elevating the importance.”

Another Democratic strategist closely involved in the effort to pass H.R. 1 hoped it was a sign of the White House “beginning to flex their muscle a bit more” and prioritizing voting rights legislation amid a crowded agenda. 

“If this is kicking off more activity from the White House, it’s really good news,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the White House’s approach.

Ultimately, however, advocates know Biden and congressional leaders will need to bring reluctant Democrats into line.

“At the end of the day, Joe Biden needs to have his Lyndon B. Johnson moment,” Albright said. “You can’t have 47 years of experience in the Senate and not know how to wrangle two votes within your own caucus. You’ve got to be able to figure that out. [Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer has got to be able to figure that out. And now, apparently, Kamala Harris has got to be able to figure that out.”

Travis Waldron contributed reporting.

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