Fury over voting rights fight turns personal on Capitol Hill 

The fight over voting rights has gone from partisan to personal. 

President Biden and his Democratic allies, furious with Republicans for opposing voting rights protections they had embraced for decades, are lashing out across the aisle with racially charged assertions that the GOP would rather secure power than ensure civil rights. 

Republicans have fired back, accusing their Democratic critics of twisting the debate away from the underlying policy to launch unfounded — and highly disparaging — attacks on the fundamental integrity of their political adversaries. 

The discussion has become inflamed in ways remarkable even by the standards of the fierce hostility and heightened distrust that practically defines relations between the two parties on Capitol Hill, particularly since last year’s attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. 

Those tensions, simmering irregularly for the last year, are now bursting into full boil as Democrats seek to adopt new federal voting protections designed to counteract the efforts of GOP-led states to install new restrictions at the polls heading into the midterm elections.

Black Democrats, warning of a return to the era of Jim Crow, have taken charge of the debate, and they’re pulling no punches in condemning those lawmakers who would stand in the way when the legislation hits the Senate floor.  

“So today, if they don’t vote — that’s evil. And we want America to know that they are cooperating with evil,” Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said of recalcitrant senators, pointing to Martin Luther King Jr.’s warning that those who silently accept evil are “cooperating with it.”  

“We’re asking them to do their job because our democracy cannot be filibustered; the right to vote cannot be filibustered.” 

Beatty made those remarks after leading a band of roughly 20 Black Caucus members on a walk across the Capitol — from the House’s Lincoln Room to the doors of the U.S. Senate — to demand passage of voting rights legislation.  

When a reporter asked about the “two senators” blocking changes to Senate filibuster rules — centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — CBC members quickly corrected her: “52 senators! 52 senators!”  

While they’re frustrated with Manchin and Sinema, CBC members say they won’t let the 50 GOP senators off the hook. It’s a message being echoed by Democratic leaders, who are also accusing Republicans of seeking to deny Americans one of their most fundamental constitutional rights.  

“We see Republicans trying to undermine the right of citizens to vote, and that’s why it’s not passing,” House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday, rejecting the notion that Manchin and Sinema are the only figures standing in the way.  

The personal tenor of the Democrats’ critiques echoes that intoned by Biden last week, when he visited Georgia — the home of King and the late Rep. John Lewis (D), a civil rights icon for whom the voting rights legislation is named — and compared the opponents of the bill to some of the most notorious racists in the nation’s history.

“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 asked.

The backlash from Republicans was immediate.

Conservative pundits accused Biden of exacerbating partisan divisions in defiance of his campaign promise to unite the country after four volatile years under former President Trump — a speech “not only offensive but meant to offend,” in the words of Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal columnist. 

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the chamber floor the following day to hammer Biden for delivering a “profoundly unpresidential” message simply to energize the Democrats’ liberal base at a time when his approval rating is underwater. 

“Twelve months ago, this president said that ‘disagreement must not lead to disunion,’” McConnell said. “But yesterday, he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War to demonize Americans who disagree with him. 

“He compared a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors.”

The debate over voting rights has not always been so controversial. 

After its adoption in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized and amended on five occasions, spanning from 1970 to 2006, with widespread support from lawmakers in both parties. Indeed, versions of the bill were signed into law by former Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush. The most recent reauthorization, in 2006, cleared the Senate on a 98-0 vote; 16 Republicans who cast that vote are still serving today.

More recently, Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” has become a common refrain from his staunchest allies in and out of Congress. Many of the state efforts to apply new restrictions on voting have stemmed from that falsehood, leading Democrats to lob charges of hypocrisy against those Republicans now opposing the federal voting protections.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, hammered Republicans earlier Wednesday with the suggestion that they’re opposing these bills because, after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, they fear another Black president. 

“What happened to the modern day Republican Party? Was it the election that took place in 2008? Did that disturb you? Did that throw you off? Were you confused by that, still trying to figure out how it occurred?” Jeffries told reporters at his weekly news conference. 

“What happened to the modern day Republican Party? It’s a cult right now. Is it because the cult leader has told you to oppose voting rights?” 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Hakeem Jeffries Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Joyce Beatty Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Steny Hoyer voting rights
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