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During a highly anticipated speech on Tuesday, President Joe Biden denounced the Republican Party for its ongoing nationwide assault on voting rights and urged passage of the For the People Act and other reforms, but he did not call for ending the 60-vote filibuster rule that enables the GOP minority in the Senate to block the very bills that would nullify their “subversion” of U.S. democracy.
“It is not enough for the president to talk about voting rights,” journalist and author John Nichols said in response to Biden’s speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “He has to come out, explicitly, unequivocally, for overturning the filibuster in order to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
Ahead of Biden’s speech, Indivisible highlighted three things they wanted to hear from the president:
- Explain to the American people why federal legislative action in the form of the For The People Act is essential in this moment;
- Call on the U.S. Senate to send the For The People Act to his desk for his signature before breaking for recess in August; and
- Outline what the White House is doing to ensure the Senate passes the bill.
On the first point, Biden delivered. The GOP’s state-level voter suppression push—which has been fueled by former President Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him—is “the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history,” the president said. He explained why federal protections are needed, declaring that “it starts with continuing the fight to pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act.”
The For the People Act is a popular bill that would counter Republican lawmakers’ attacks on the franchise and increase ballot access nationwide by establishing minimum electoral standards in every state. Provisions of the bill include implementing automatic voter registration, limiting states’ ability to purge voters from the rolls, requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to combat partisan gerrymandering, and setting up a publicly financed small-dollar donation matching system for candidates who reject high-dollar contributions.
Emphasizing that “17 states have enacted, not just proposed but enacted, 28 new laws to make it harder for Americans to vote,” Biden said that Republicans “want make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all. That’s what this is about… the 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. And we’re gonna challenge it vigorously.”
“To me, this is simple. It’s election subversion,” Biden said of Republicans’ attempts to restrict ballot access and give right-wing state legislatures and election officials the power to overturn the will of voters.
“As much as people know they’re screwing around with the election process, I don’t think that most people think this is about who gets to count what vote counts,” the president added. “We must ask those who represent us at the federal, state, and local levels, will you deny the will of the people? Will you ignore their voices? Are you on the side of truth or lies, fact or fiction, justice or injustice, democracy or autocracy? That’s what it’s coming down to.”
Biden called on senators to send the For the People Act as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to his desk, where he would sign them “and let the whole world see it.”
However, despite describing the For the People Act as a “national imperative,” drawing attention to the U.S. Supreme Court’s latest weakening of the Voting Rights Act, and making other references to the urgency of the moment, the president didn’t specify that Congress should pass the legislation before the August recess, nor did he describe the necessary steps to get there.
On Monday night, after fleeing the state in order to deny their Republican colleagues the quorum needed to ram through a sweeping voter suppression package, Texas state Democratic lawmakers implored congressional Democrats to act immediately to protect U.S. democracy from the GOP onslaught.
Biden, however, made no mention of the filibuster on Tuesday, even though that anti-democratic rule—which requires a 60-vote supermajority to advance most legislation—allowed the Senate’s Republican minority to prevent debate on S. 1, as the upper chamber’s version of the For the People Act is called, last month.
Responding to Biden’s speech, MoveOn executive director Rahna Epting called the GOP’s attacks on voting “a five-alarm fire for our democracy,” and said that despite Biden’s refusal to mention the filibuster, suspending or abolishing it through a simple-majority vote remains key to any legislative victory.
“We must remove the obstacle standing in the way of addressing this crisis—the filibuster,” Epting said. “The right to vote—the cornerstone of our democracy—must not be subject to Mitch McConnell’s political obstruction. Arcane and outdated Senate procedures and norms are not more important than our constitutional rights.”
Author and voting rights expert Ari Berman also stressed that filibuster reform is essential for Senate Democrats to have a chance of enacting S. 1 and the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
While he acknowledged that the president’s speech was “powerful,” Berman said that “we still need a roadmap for how to pass voting rights bills in the Senate.” According to Berman, “that requires exempting [voting rights bills] from the filibuster, which Biden needs to call for.”
When it comes to actions the White House is taking to ensure passage of S. 1, Biden is “failing to meet the moment,” according to progressive critics.
“There is a wide gap between Biden’s rhetoric and his leadership,” said Battle Born Collective executive director Adam Jentleson. “In his speech, he described the conservative assault on our democracy as an existential threat, yet he refused to endorse the obvious solution, which is to pass voting rights legislation and reform the filibuster to do so, if necessary.”
“This was always going to be a steep hill to climb, but it is much steeper without active, personal engagement and leadership from the president,” Jentleson continued. “While the White House is correct to point out that there is no ‘magic wand’ on this issue, the president is failing to do the bare minimum, such as endorsing the steps necessary to counter the threat he described today. To save our democracy, we need leadership and action, not just words.”
Although the president noted that he has requested more resources and enforcement personnel for the Justice Department’s voting rights division, Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer argued that the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act “are the only solution that will override the new state voter suppression and discrimination laws being enacted around the country which are aimed at denying millions of Black, brown, poor, disabled, and other voters their ability to vote.”
“These problems cannot be solved in the courts because the Supreme Court has decimated the Voting Rights Act,” Wertheimer continued. “And it belies reality to believe, as some White House officials have suggested, that they can ‘out-organize’ the impact of the state voter suppression and discrimination laws.”
“The time has come,” said Wertheimer, “for President Biden to emulate President Lyndon Johnson, who recognized the fundamental moral wrong of denying millions of citizens the right to vote when he went all-in to successfully lobby Congress to enact the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Wertheimer added that “President Biden must move promptly to actively and seriously lobby Congress to create another exception to the filibuster rules to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”
“The passage of this legislation,” he said, “will be the test of whether President Biden’s efforts to protect voting rights are successful.”