After Texas passed a new elections bill to tighten its voting laws this past week and the Supreme Court allowed the state’s law restricting abortion access to go into effect, the response from the White House was largely the same in both cases: It’s up to Congress to act.
The White House has been steadfast on some of the most pressing issues for Democrats that its hands are largely tied. Biden administration officials argue they’ve done as much as they can to unilaterally protect voting rights and that Congress must now pass legislation bolstering protections.
Officials sounded a similar note last week on abortion, with President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE vowing his administration would review potential remedies at the federal level. But he and others ultimately acknowledged Congress must codify access to an abortion for women to fully protect the precedent set by Roe v. Wade.
The White House’s approach of ultimately deferring to Congress has frustrated activists who believe the administration should push for more radical reforms such as doing away with the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court. Progressives in particular have cautioned that offering lip service is not enough, and that hard-earned gains will quickly slip away after next year’s midterm elections.
“We saw very clearly with infrastructure what it looks like when President Biden and his administration truly care about getting something done. They go to the Hill. They engage. They reach out. They have meetings. They have phone calls. They apply pressure,” said Eli Zupnick, a former Senate aide and a spokesman for the progressive group Fix Our Senate, which supports filibuster reform.
“That is why it has I think rung a little hollow when they say they’re going to step back on issues that many advocates and people across the country care about like voting rights, like reproductive rights, because we know that the only way this can get done is if the White House gets engaged and applies pressure,” Zupnick added.
The Supreme Court late Wednesday, in a 5-4 ruling, refused to block a Texas law that prohibits abortions six weeks after conception and makes exceptions only for medical emergencies. The law authorizes private citizens to sue those who perform or aid the procedure. Abortion groups estimated the law would apply to 90 percent of cases, and most women do not realize they are pregnant at six weeks.
Biden in response directed his Gender Policy Council and the White House counsel to review what options the Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services might have to protect women in Texas seeking abortions.
But while the administration has pledged to use “every lever” at its disposal to fight back against the Texas law, White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Health Care — FDA panel backs boosters for some, but not all White House to host global COVID-19 summit next week Overnight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France MORE acknowledged Thursday that it’s unknown what measures are even possible at the federal level.
“The president has every hope, expectation that the leaders of agencies across the government who have capacity will seek every way they can, every means they can to protect a woman's right to choose in Texas,” Psaki said at a press briefing.
Instead, Biden, Psaki and Vice President Harris have made clear there is one certain remedy to the issue: for Congress to pass a law codifying a woman’s right to an abortion. The House is set to vote on such a measure upon returning from recess, but the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, where it would need to overcome the 60-vote filibuster.
The abortion debate reminds some activists of the ongoing push to pass federal voting rights legislation, which took on added urgency for many advocates with the advance of a Texas voting bill last week that critics say will make it harder for many in the state to access the ballot.
In response to that bill passing, Harris, who has been tasked with leading the administration’s efforts to protect voting rights, reiterated her call for Congress to “act to protect the voting rights of all Americans by passing the For the People Act and the John LewisJohn LewisHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Budowsky: High stakes drama for Biden, Manchin, Sinema Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise MORE Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
Biden and other officials have made similar appeals before, but both pieces of legislation face a dead end in the Senate, where they need 60 votes each to overcome the filibuster. While Biden delivered a major address in July stressing the importance of protecting the right to vote and decrying GOP-led efforts to curtail ballot access, he has stopped short of backing calls from some allies for a filibuster carve-out for voting rights.
Biden has also largely shied away from discussion about expanding or reforming the Supreme Court, which gained new momentum after the ruling that left the Texas abortion restrictions in place.
Activists argue Biden’s unwillingness to engage on filibuster reform or Supreme Court reform will cause Democratic priorities to languish in Congress.
“If you are not willing to reform the filibuster and expand the court, you are not willing to do what it takes to win this fight. If we keep playing beanbag while they play hardball, the results will be more of this. It's that simple,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for onetime Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE (D-Nev.).