President Biden will ramp up his push for voting rights protections Tuesday when he and Vice President Harris travel to Atlanta to make the case for new federal legislation.
But the heightened focus on voting rights is a significant gamble for Biden.
The congressional math to pass either of the two bills that would strengthen voting protections is extraordinarily difficult.
Thanks to blanket Republican opposition — and the 50-50 split in the Senate — passing legislation in the regular fashion is out of the question, since doing so would require a 60-vote supermajority to defeat a GOP filibuster.
The only semirealistic alternative is reform of the filibuster.
Progressives have been clamoring for such a move since the start of the Biden presidency. But its chances are close to nonexistent so long as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) hold to their stated positions opposing such a change.
Put it all together and it is easy to see how Biden could raise progressive expectations by talking up the need for voting rights legislation, only to disappoint those hopes if nothing actually happens.
This, in turn, could leave Democratic base voters disenchanted going into November’s midterm elections — just when Biden and his party need their supporters revved up if they are to stand any chance of rebuffing the GOP’s efforts to take back Congress.
The White House is not blind to the danger and clearly believes the risk is worth it. There is also an acknowledgment, from the Oval Office down, that doing nothing is not an option.
“There is nothing domestically more important,” Biden said last month.
But Biden and his aides are treading a fine line when it comes to the expectations game.
During Monday’s White House media briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki was asked by NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell whether Biden believed his involvement and political capital could create a “tipping point” on the issue.
“Well, it’s a hard question to answer, because really what we’re talking about is whether we can get enough votes in Congress to get this done,” Psaki responded.
Democrats and progressives by and large support Biden’s new push on the issue, even though they acknowledge the challenges.
“I think they have to be caught trying,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist and former Senate leadership aide. “You don’t want to leave any Democrat, particularly any African American Democrat, with any questions about the president’s commitment to follow through on this.”
Those were precisely the kind of questions that were being asked with increasing urgency on the left during Biden’s first year.
During that time, Biden signaled a wariness about filibuster reform and largely delegated the voting rights issue to Harris. The president chose to focus mostly on other parts of his legislative agenda, winning passage of a COVID-19 relief bill and an infrastructure bill but failing — so far — to pass the biggest bill of all, on social spending.
The time and political capital spent on that effort left some progressives uneasy as the battle for voting rights languished.
Some key advocates for voting rights in Georgia are staying away from the president’s speech, arguing action rather than rhetoric is needed. Stacey Abrams, who is known for her years-long efforts on the issue and is running for a second time to become the state’s governor, will also not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.
Tré Easton, the deputy director of Battle Born Collective, a progressive group, told this column that the Tuesday trip from Biden and Harris was “necessary.”
But, Easton said, “I would add that it is a little late in the game around this specific issue. If we had seen this kind of intensity this time a year ago, we would be in a different place in this conversation.”
When it comes to expectations — and whether they might be raised and then dashed — Easton said, “I think it is hard to game out what will happen if there is another failed effort. But I don’t think anyone is going into this with rose-colored glasses about things changing.”
There are, to be sure, some political advantages for Democrats to wring from the issue, even if legislation does not ultimately pass.
Beyond the mere fact of showing some fight, the push will also get Republicans on record as opposing the effort to shore up voting rights.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised debate in the upper chamber on changing the filibuster rules “on or before” Jan. 17. The date, less than a week away, marks the public holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
On Monday, Schumer painted Republican opposition to voting rights legislation as a form of “offering their own endorsement of the Big Lie” — former President Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shot back that Democratic leaders were trying to “bully and berate their own members into breaking the Senate.”
Can Biden somehow break the logjam? It seems, for the moment, unlikely. If he fails, he will be again open to the charge that he has failed to deliver on some of the base’s most cherished priorities.
But according to most Democrats, the only other choice is not to try — and that’s not a choice at all.
“Access to the ballot and supporting the right to vote — these are core tenets of being a Democrat,” said Payne. “The moment is now.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Additional reporting by Jordain Carney and Brett Samuels.