President Biden got testy with a reporter on Wednesday in an exchange about his voting rights speech in Atlanta last week as he insisted that he did not liken senators who do not support election reform bills to Bull Connor and George Wallace.
“Look what I said. Go back and read what I said and tell me if you think I called anyone who voted on the side of position taken by Bull Connor that they were Bull Connor,” Biden said in response to a questions by a Real Clear Politics reporter during a press conference at the White House, his voice rising. “That is an interesting reading of English. I assume you got into journalism because you like to write.”
Several Republicans have taken issue with Biden’s rhetoric last week during which he sought to make a forceful push to change the legislative filibuster – which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation – to pass voting rights bills in the face of GOP opposition.
“I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Biden said during the speech last week.
“This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) harshly criticized the speech as “profoundly unpresidential” and “incorrect,” and other Republicans have also taken issue with the president’s words.
Biden twice during the press conference Wednesday denied that he was comparing lawmakers who do not get behind passing voting rights bills to historical figures who supported segregation.
“I did not say that they were going to be a George Wallace or a Bull Connor. I said we’re going to have a decision in history that is going to be marked just like it was then. You either voted on the side — that didn’t make you George Wallace or it didn’t make you Bull Connor, but if you did not vote for the Voting Rights Act back then, you were voting with those who agreed with Connor,” Biden said.
“Mitch did a real good job making it sound like I was attacking them,” Biden said of McConnell’s criticism of the comments. “You notice, I haven’t attacked anybody publicly, any senator, any congressman publicly. My disagreements with them have been … communicated to them privately or in person with them.”
Biden’s push for voting rights legislation is expected to fail in the Senate this week, where Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have held firm in their opposition to weakening the filibuster.
Asked later whether Biden expected his rhetoric to work in convincing Manchin and Sinema to support changes to the filibuster to pass voting rights bills, Biden answered that he felt he needed to speak out “forcefully” on the issue.
“There are certain things that are so consequential that you have to speak from the heart as well as your head. I was speaking out forcefully on what I think to be at stake,” he said. “You don’t get to vote this way and somehow it goes away. This will stick with you the rest of your career and long after you’re gone.”