By ALEXANDRA JAFFE, COLLEEN LONG and JEFF AMY
ATLANTA (AP) – President Joe Biden beat his hand to stress and on Tuesday challenged senators to “oppose voter oppression” by changing Senate rules to pass voting laws that Republicans block for debate and voting.
Biden told a crowd in Atlanta gathered because of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University that he had had quiet talks with senators for several months about the two bills – a lack of progress that has brought him criticism from activists in his own party.
“I’m tired of being quiet!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd.
In his remarks, Biden invoked the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He compared past injustices to today’s efforts to undermine elections through the Capitol riot a year ago, and a series of GOP-backed laws were passed after former President Donald Trump lost in 2020 and then mistakenly claimed widespread voter fraud. Biden rebuked Republicans for standing in line behind Trump’s election lies.
“Today, we urge Congress to do what history will judge,” Biden said. “Give the freedom to vote.”
Biden’s speech was powerful, blunt, and explicit, referring to new efforts to restrict voice access such as “Jim Crow 2.0.” For the first time, he went directly in favor of eliminating the Senate voting bloc unit called the filibuster to debate and vote on electoral and suffrage legislation. Although his focus brings more national attention to the upcoming debate, it is not clear what impact his newfound brand will have.
The current rules require 60 votes to advance most of the legislation – a threshold that Senate Democrats cannot meet alone because they only have a 50-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. Republicans are unanimous against voting rights.
There are also not enough democratic votes to change the Senate rule. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin threw colder water on the idea Tuesday, saying he believes changes should be made with a significant Republican buy-in. And there are no Republican senators willing to sign.
“Not a single Republican has shown the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect Americans’ right to vote,” Biden said. “Not one. Not one.”
Congress Democrats have enacted voting legislation that would usher in the largest revision of U.S. elections in a generation by breaking down barriers to voting passed in the name of electoral security. The legislation would also reduce the influence of big money in politics and limit biased influence over the drawing of congressional districts.
The package would create national election standards that would trump GOP laws at the state level. It would also restore the Justice Department’s ability to monitor election laws in states with a history of discrimination.
Republicans say the changes are not aimed at justice, but at giving Democrats an advantage in elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accused Biden of invoking “the brutal racial hatred of Jim Crow Segregation to erode the states'” new voting laws.
And that comes from “a sitting president of the United States who promised to lower the temperature and unite America,” McConnell said.
Even if Democrats remove the barriers to legislation, it may be too late to address voting restrictions passed in 19 states after Trump’s loss in 2020 and his lies – embraced by many in the GOP – that the election was stolen through voter fraud.
Voting rights activists in Georgia and nationally are increasingly concerned about what may happen in 2022 and beyond. They see the changes in many states as a more subtle form of ballot restrictions such as reading and writing tests and polls that were once used to deprive black voters of an important democratic constituency.
“This means something to all of us,” Biden insisted. “The goal of the former president and his allies is to deprive anyone who votes against him as simple as that.”
The president spent decades in the Senate, and he spoke with regret about how much it has changed for the worse, calling it “a shell of his former self.” He spoke of an era not long ago in which an issue such as suffrage would never have been so eerily partisan.
He recalled working with segregationist lawmakers in the Senate to get legislation passed and then to be signed by Republican presidents. But now filibusters have been used frequently to block even the debate over some legislation.
“How do you want to be remembered?” he asked his former congressional colleagues.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., has set next Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the rules. Biden told his audience: “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in the history of this nation.”
“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not give in. I will not give way,” he declared. “I will defend the right to vote, our democracy, against all enemies foreign, yes and domestic.The question is, where will the institution of the US Senate stand?
Biden also visited Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. once held forth from the pulpit. He stood still as Martin Luther King III placed a wreath outside at the crypt of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Some suffrage advocates boycotted Biden’s speech out of frustration over Washington’s passivity. Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, known for her tireless work on the right to vote, said she skipped the event due to a planning conflict that she did not elaborate.
King said in a statement that he was happy to host Biden, but that he also supported those who chose to skip the speech.
“We have seen what is possible when President Biden uses the full weight of his office to deliver to bridges,” he said, referring to Biden’s successful push for a $ 1 trillion infrastructure spending deal. “And now we have to see him do the same in terms of voting rights.”
Republicans who have fallen in line behind Trump’s misinformation about elections are each promoting efforts to influence future elections by installing sympathetic leaders in local polling stations and by supporting some of those who took part in the riots at the US capital for polling stations. .
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke in front of Biden on Tuesday, warning that the barrage of new state laws means there is “a danger of getting used to these laws, a danger of adapting to these laws as if they were normal.”
“There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to hand out water or food to people standing in long voting queues,” she said to cheers.
Georgia is at the center of it all, one of the most important battlefield states in the 2020 election. After the votes were counted and re-counted, Trump told the top state election official that he wanted the official to “find” enough votes to topple his loss. The votes of the state nonetheless went to Biden, and both of its senate seats also went to the Democrats.
Last year, the state’s Republican governor signed a sweeping rewriting of election rules that, among other things, give the state election board new powers to intervene in county election offices and to remove and replace local election officials. This has led to concerns that the Republican-controlled state government could exert more influence over the administration of elections, including certification of county results.
Amy reported from Atlanta. AP Congress correspondent Lisa Mascaro and Brian Slodysko contributed to this report.