WASHINGTON — "Tired of being quiet," President Joe Biden put Democrats on notice Tuesday that he supports changing how the U.S. Senate conducts the country’s business if it means passing legislation aimed at protecting the right of Americans to vote — a step he says is vital to the mission of protecting democracy.
Biden, speaking in Atlanta to a crowd of prominent civil rights activists, Georgia lawmakers and members of Congress, gave his unqualified blessing to the idea of doing away with the filibuster, even if only temporarily, in order to pass legislation to blunt what he calls a Republican attack on the country's core values.
"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 to rousing cheers. He said he's done having "quiet conversations" with lawmakers about the issue.
"I'm tired of being quiet," he said. "When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate."
The challenge for the White House is that at the moment, that majority is as thin as it gets: 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with only Vice-President Kamala Harris available to break ties. Sixty votes, a so-called "supermajority," is what’s typically required to get most bills through the upper chamber.
Without 60 votes, any senator in the minority can use the filibuster to extend debate on a bill indefinitely, ensuring it never comes to a vote — a tactic that these days is easily invoked in writing, rather than the old-fashioned "talking filibuster" of years gone by.
Biden has long hinted at his support for a "carve-out" exception to the filibuster rule for voting rights, a strategy deployed as recently as last year to get a coronavirus relief bill done, but until Tuesday had never delivered such a full-throated endorsement.
And he did it with a pointed reminder of how close predecessor Donald Trump — a “defeated former president,” Biden stressed — came in the dying days of his presidency to overthrowing the rule of electoral law on Capitol Hill last Jan. 6.
"Democracy’s victory was not certain, nor is democracy’s future," the president said.
"We’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup — a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud, seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people.
"They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule."
Republicans, however, say the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are simply measures aimed at preventing them from taking power.
In a divided Senate, the bills have focused fresh attention on Capitol Hill's two most coveted Democratic votes: West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, neither of whom has shown any enthusiasm for the idea of doing away with the filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set a deadline of Monday, which happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., to trigger a debate and a vote on whether to change the rules.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck McConnell, meanwhile, says it's the Democrats who are attacking democracy, not the Republicans — and he doesn't plan to let it happen without a fight.
"Fifty Republican senators, the largest possible minority, have been sent here to represent the many millions of Americans whom Leader Schumer wants so badly to leave behind," McConnell said on the floor of the chamber.
"If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory."
An analysis released last year by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 19 states passed 33 new laws in 2021 that stiffen the rules around voting, particularly with regards to voter ID and using early or mail-in ballots. Republicans argue that the new laws actually make voting more accessible, not less.
Stringent new penalties on election officials in Georgia, Texas, Kansas and Iowa make it harder for election officials to assist voters, such as by delivering completed ballots for people who might need help doing so.
In Georgia, it's illegal to provide water or food to people waiting in long lines at polling stations. Texas has made it against the law to encourage voters to request mail-in ballots or to regulate the behaviour of poll watchers.
"Whether it's education, health care or anything of that sort, being able to exercise their rights to have a say in those decisions — this is how democracy works," said Alice Huling, a voting rights expert and general counsel for Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit advocacy group focused on electoral issues.
"Unfortunately, that ability — the freedom to have a say in those decisions — has been facing multiple threats."
Many of those threats have been in direct response to Trump's persistent and ongoing efforts to undermine the results of the 2020 election, which by every measure, legal and otherwise, legitimately elevated Biden to the White House.
Critics say the measures represent a broad, concerted effort to disenfranchise certain voters in the U.S., particularly low-income Americans and people of colour, and to make it easier to challenge legitimate election outcomes.
The antidotes, they say, are already before Congress.
If passed, the Freedom to Vote Act would establish minimum federal standards for voting access and make it harder for partisan actors to jerry-rig the process. The John Lewis bill, named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights champion, is designed to limit discrimination at the ballot box.
Charles Bullock, a politics professor at the University of Georgia, said Democrats are clearly staking their political future on the issue of voting rights — and may also be overstating the risk of inaction as a result.
"It is an issue that mobilizes the Democratic base better than about anything else," Bullock said in an interview, dismissing fears of a total disenfranchisement of Black voters in Georgia and a return to the Jim Crow era.
"Those who characterize the Georgia law, the Texas law as being Jim Crow 2.0 simply have no idea what Jim Crow did, which actually did pretty much eliminate Black participation," he said.
"Well, that's not going to happen today. By Democrats campaigning against these laws and using them to motivate their base, we may actually see higher participation (in elections)."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press