White House sees clock ticking on voting rights push

Pro-Democratic supporters are seen during a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol and to support voting rights on Thursday, January 6, 2022.
Greg Nash

The White House is returning its focus to protecting voting rights, and with a renewed sense of urgency.

With the administration’s social spending agenda effectively stalled in the 50-50 Senate, Democrats are eager to see a win on an issue they warn could have long-term consequences for U.S. democracy.

President Biden and Vice President Harris both mentioned the threat to the right to vote in their respective speeches to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and each will deliver remarks in Georgia on Tuesday on the subject ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“If the Senate cannot pass the voting rights act before the King holiday, they are making a mockery of the holiday,” Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, told reporters on a call this week.

“If you can find a way to pass infrastructure, you can find a way to deal with the moral structure of this country, and that is the Voting Rights Act,” Sharpton added.

Advocates have sounded the alarm for months about the threat to voting rights, pointing to a slew of laws enacted by GOP legislatures amid false claims from President Trump and his allies over the 2020 election that critics say will make it more difficult for certain groups to vote.

The White House and Senate Democrats have made a coordinated shift this month to prioritize passage of voting rights legislation. Democratic officials believe they now have the best window to get some type of action on the issue while the party still holds majorities in both chambers before the midterm elections.

But doing so is likely to require a change in Senate rules. The two bills the White House supports – the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act – have no GOP support and have been unable to clear the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Biden and Harris specifically chose Georgia because it is the site of two key Senate victories last January that swung control of the chamber — and because the state was among the first to enact new voting laws last year.

While White House officials have been mum about what exactly Biden will say on Tuesday, he is likely to discuss potential rule changes that could make it easier to pass legislation strengthening access to the ballot.

“He’ll talk about the specifics. And he’s very focused on people in the country understanding and knowing what is in this legislation, why is it so important to pass these pieces of legislation, what is at risk, what needs to be protected. And I think you’ll hear him talk about that,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday.

“And he also wants to, of course, restore the Senate working — which is not happening right now, as is evidenced by the fact that they have blocked even the ability to vote on voting rights legislation four times,” she added.

Biden’s speech will be closely watched by activists who have grown frustrated about the lack of movement on voting rights. Progressive and civil rights leaders have been pushing for action for months, worried that a failure to pass federal legislation now will lead to even more restrictive voting measures if Republicans retake control in Washington.

“Democrats need to recognize that we cannot out-organize voter suppression. We can only legislate it out of existence,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the progressive group MoveOn.

Patience has worn thin in some circles. A coalition of advocacy groups in Georgia issued a statement on Thursday urging Biden and Harris not to bother coming on Tuesday without a concrete plan to pass federal legislation, suggesting an appearance otherwise would merely be an “empty gesture.”

Biden delivered a speech on the need to protect voting rights last summer in Philadelphia, and Harris has made it a central component of her policy portfolio by meeting with grassroots groups and speaking about the need for federal legislation.

But with the midterms around the corner and growing concerns about the effects of state-level laws, Democrats see no time to waste.

“Right now, in state after state, new laws are being written — not to protect the vote, but to deny it; not only to suppress the vote, but to subvert it; not to strengthen or protect our democracy, but because the former president lost,” Biden said in remarks at the Capitol marking the Jan. 6 anniversary.

Democrats hold 50 seats in the Senate, and there is an acknowledgment that little can be done without changes to the chamber’s rules. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to force a vote by Jan. 17 on changing the 60-vote legislative filibuster if Republicans again block voting rights legislation.

It’s unclear whether Schumer will have any success, given that centrist Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have voiced opposition to getting rid of the legislative filibuster and doing so would require the support of every Democrat.

But for many activists, there must be a stronger push from the White House to openly support those changes and forcefully call for passage of legislation to prove that voting rights is as important to the administration as other policy items that were prioritized in 2021.

“We saw what’s possible when President Biden used the full weight of his office to deliver for our nation’s infrastructure,” Martin Luther King III said on a call with reporters. “Now we need to see him do the same for our voting rights.”

Tags Atlanta Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Freedom to Vote Act Georgia Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Kyrsten Sinema Voter suppression voting rights voting rights legislation

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