Biden to endorse changing Senate filibuster rules to pass voting changes

Voting Right Act and Jan 6

Biden says American democracy depends on Democrats partisan agenda

President Biden on Tuesday is expected to endorse changes to the Senate filibuster in order to push through federal voting rights legislation, and warn that the tool has “injured the body enormously” and contributed to “abhorrent” GOP obstruction of the measure, a White House official said. 

The president is set to travel to Georgia Tuesday to deliver remarks from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, on the campus of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. 

In his speech, Biden is expected to “forcefully advocate” for protecting what a White House official described as “the most bedrock American rights: the right to vote and have your vote counted in a free, fair and secure election that is not tainted by partisan manipulation.” 

Biden’s remarks will take place in the former district of late Rep. John Lewis, as he urges the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. 

“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden will say, according to prepared remarks. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice?” 

President Biden walks to the Oval Office of the White House after stepping off Marine One, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Washington. 
(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“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,” Biden will say. ‘And so the question is where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”

Biden will also use his remarks to call for Republicans to “get behind” voting rights policies, and is set to point to the Voting Rights Act extension passed by the Senate in 2006–an extension Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., approved. 

Citing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Biden is set to say “it’s time for Republicans who support the rule of law to stand up for democracy.” 

But the president will also use his speech to endorse making changes to the filibuster, citing “repeated obstruction” from Republicans. 

“He supports – as an institutionalist – changing the Senate rules to ensure it can work again and be restored and this basic right is defended,” the official said.

“Because abuse of what was once a rarely used mechanism that is not in the Constitution has injured the body enormously, and its use to protect extreme attacks on the most basic constitutional right is abhorrent.” 

The filibuster is a threshold of 60 votes in the Senate that’s necessary before a piece of legislation is given an up or down vote.

If Democrats wanted to establish a new filibuster precedent, they could do so with 51 votes – all 50 senators in the Democratic caucus plus Vice President Harris breaking the tie.

Senate Republicans blocked the voting rights legislation four times in 2021. Republicans have argued the legislation would infringe on the right of states to dictate their own election laws and would unduly favor the Democratic Party. The latest version of the voting rights legislation would establish a federal election framework, create rules aimed at preventing partisan redistricting, and overhaul the campaign finance system.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has repeatedly threatened that Democrats would explore ways to get rid of the filibuster, should Republicans continue to use the tool to block debate on the voting rights bill. 

And Biden in October said he was open to the possibility of altering or eliminating the filibuster in order to pass federal voting rights legislation. Progressives have repeatedly called on Biden to support abolishing the filibuster to address election reforms. 

Meanwhile, the president’s remarks Tuesday come after his speech to mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot last week, when thousands sought to “violently overturn the results” of the 2020 presidential election. The White House official cited Trump administration top election security officials, who “confirmed” the 2020 election “was the most secure election in history.” 

Cobb County Election officials handle ballots during an audit, Nov. 16, 2020, in Marietta, Georgia. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

“The president will describe this as one of the rare moments in a country’s history when time stops and the essential is immediately ripped away from the trivial, and that we have to ensure January 6th doesn’t mark the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance for our democracy, where we stand up for the right to vote and to have that voted counted fairly – not undermined by partisans afraid of who you voted for,” the White House official said.

The official added that Biden will use Georgia “as an example,” after the state legislature, led by Republicans, passed sweeping voting legislation that they maintain secures their elections across the state. But the Biden administration has targeted the Georgia law, with the Justice Department going so far as to sue the state, alleging that Georgia’s SB 202 violates the Voting Rights Act.

“He’ll use Georgia as an example, highlighting that after Georgians decisively voted for new leadership in 2020, Republicans in the legislature decided that they could not win on the merits of their ideas and instead passed a voter suppression law that targeted mail-in voting, limited precincts in areas that didn’t vote the way they wanted, and empowered partisans in the state legislature to manipulate local boards of election,” the White House official said. 

Georgia’s new law requires voter ID for absentee voting rather than relying on signature matching for verification; limits ballot drop boxes to one per county or one per 100,000 voters; and expands early voting days and standardized early voting hours to a minimum of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a maximum of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The legislation also barred outside groups from passing out food and water to those in line, which Republicans say can be used as a method to illegally influence people waiting to vote.

The law also handed more election authority to the GOP-controlled state legislature. It states that the General Assembly is to select the chair of the state elections board, rather than the board being chaired by the Georgia secretary of state. It also shortens runoffs from nine weeks to four.

The state election board can also now investigate county election boards and has the power to suspend county election superintendents – though the board can only suspend four at a time.

The provisions the DOJ are targeting include a ban on government entities handing out unsolicited absentee ballots; fines on civic groups, places of worship and advocacy organizations for distributing follow-up absentee ballots; and shortening absentee ballot deadlines to 11 days before Election Day.

But the White House official said while the president is expected to highlight Georgia, he will point out that it is “not an outlier,” as Republican legislators in 19 states passed 34 bills that, they claim, “restrict access to voting.” 

“These new measures include provisions that make it harder for people to register to vote, curtail mail-in voting and early voting, and make it easier for state officials to simply delete your voter registration,” the White House official said. 

Biden is expected to “emphasize that 21st-century Jim Crow is about voter suppression and election subversion: who gets to vote, whether your vote is counted, and who counts it.” 

Biden is set to claim that the laws are “extreme” and “radical,” and target “the rights of everyone, of any race, who they are afraid might vote against them.” 

Meanwhile, Vice President Harris, in her remarks, is also set to “reaffirm” that securing the right to vote is “essential to safeguarding and strengthening our democracy.”

Harris is expected to draw on “the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and will call on the Senate to pass both pieces of historic federal voting rights legislation. 

House Democrats, in August, passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, by a margin of 219-212, with all Republicans voting no and all present Democrats voting yes.

The Lewis bill outlines a new, expanded formula that the Department of Justice can use to identify discriminatory voting patterns in states and local jurisdictions. Those entities would then need to get DOJ approval before making further changes to elections. The bill also includes a provision designed to counter the summer’s Supreme Court ruling that made it harder to challenge potentially discriminatory voting changes.

The House version of the companion bill, the “For the People Act” stalled in the Senate amid Republican opposition.  

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