Voting advocates focus on next steps after Biden speech

Advocacy groups and civil rights leaders are proceeding with cautious optimism after President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE delivered an impassioned speech this week calling for Senate changes to pass voting bills, even as they say more tangible action is needed.

Activists and some progressive groups had grown exasperated in recent months, arguing the White House was not using the full force of its bully pulpit to push for federal voting rights legislation that was languishing in the evenly split Senate.

Biden traveled to Georgia on Tuesday where he offered a full-throated endorsement for changing Senate rules however is necessary to pass voting rights legislation. The president also suggested those who may try to thwart the bills will be judged harshly by history.

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The speech earned praise from advocates for being more forceful and urgent than Biden's previous remarks. And while the focus will soon shift to the Senate, voting rights groups and Biden allies are hoping the president is not done applying pressure to lawmakers.

“I met with President Biden and Vice President Harris shortly after their remarks in Atlanta,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network, said in a statement. “I told the president he gave a monumental speech and, though I have been challenging him for months to be forthcoming, it was better late than never."

“For Democrats to not stand up and support the sitting Democratic president will show that they have betrayed their party and the American people, and their legacies will be forever tainted,” Sharpton added.

Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial candidate whose absence from Tuesday’s event raised eyebrows, said in a statement following Biden’s speech that she was appreciative of the work the White House was doing and thanked the president and vice president for visiting the state.

Biden faced some resistance heading into Atlanta from local advocacy groups, and there was skepticism among voting rights activists about his commitment to getting something done. They noted his last big speech on the topic was in July, with a push for infrastructure legislation taking priority in the months in between.

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A handful of Georgia voting rights groups urged Biden not to bother coming on Tuesday without a concrete plan for getting voting rights legislation passed. One of those groups, the New Georgia Project, commended Biden for his call to eliminate the filibuster for the sake of voting rights legislation.

“But let’s be clear: we’ve heard rhetoric like this before,” the organization said after Biden’s speech. “What we need now is concrete action to protect our fundamental right to vote and the integrity to hold our friends to the same standard as our opponents. After all, a goal without a plan is just a wish.” 

Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, met with Biden and Vice President Harris ahead of the speech and conveyed to the two that they expected  “strong action, not just words.”

“We need to see a plan,” King III said in a statement. “We will be watching closely and mobilizing to ensure his speech is backed by the full power and influence of his office.”

The White House on Wednesday sought to prove Biden’s speech was not a one-off effort on their part, announcing that the president would make the trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday to speak to Senate Democrats about voting rights legislation.

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Biden and Harris, who asked to take the lead on voting rights as part of her portfolio, will be calling lawmakers in the coming days to lobby them on the legislation and changes to Senate rules, the White House said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.) has said he will bring up a pair of voting bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John LewisJohn LewisDespite Senate setbacks, the fight for voting rights is far from over Arizona Democratic Party executive board censures Sinema McConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash MORE Voting Rights Advancement Act — in the coming days. If Republicans block it, which is expected, Schumer has said he will hold a vote on changing the Senate's rules by Monday, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Neither Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinEven working piecemeal, Democrats need a full agenda for children Poll: 30 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (D-W.Va.) nor Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaPoll: 30 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams MORE (D-Ariz.) has said they will vote to change the rules, though Democratic senators met with them on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

While activists are still hoping to see Biden apply continued pressure, many acknowledge the fate of the legislation is ultimately in the hands of the Senate, where Democrats have the slimmest of majorities and may not have another chance to pass sweeping voting bills if this one slips through the cracks.

“I do think the window of impact for the midterm elections is closing if they do not pass voting rights,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino. 

“Full eyes have to be on the Senate, and I think we have to ask, who are the patriots amongst the Republicans?” Kumar added. “Who wants to leave a legacy and be on the right side of history. The disenfranchisement of millions of Americans will impact people for decades.”