Biden to endorse filibuster changes to push voting rights bill

Tuesday, January 11, 2022
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President Joe Biden stands at the top of the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Biden is traveling to Georgia to give a speech endorsing changing the Senate filibuster rules that have stalled voting rights legislation, saying it's time to choose "democracy over autocracy." But some civil rights groups won't be there, in protest of what they say is administration inaction. AP PHOTO

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will use a speech in Georgia to endorse changing Senate rules that have stalled voting rights legislation, saying it’s time to choose “democracy over autocracy.” But some civil rights groups won’t be there, in protest of what they say is administration inaction.

As he turns to his current challenge, Biden on Tuesday is also paying tribute to civil rights battles past — visiting Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once held forth from the pulpit, and placing a wreath at the crypt of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., setting next Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a deadline to either pass voting legislation or consider revising the rules around the chamber’s filibuster blocking device, Biden is expected to evoke the memories of the U.S. Capitol riot a year ago in more forcefully aligning himself with the voting rights effort.

Biden plans to tell his audience, “The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation.”

“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” he’ll say, according to prepared remarks. “I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”

A White House official, previewing the speech on the condition of anonymity, said Biden would voice support for changing the Senate filibuster rules only so far as ensuring the right to vote is defended — a strategy some Democrats have been looking to the president to embrace. The current rules require 60 votes to advance most legislation including voting rights — a threshold that Senate Democrats can’t meet alone because they only have a 50-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. Republicans unanimously oppose the voting rights measures.

Biden in the past has waded more cautiously into the debate. He is a former longtime senator who largely stands by existing rules but is also under enormous political pressure to engineer a breakthrough. Even with his pressure, it’s not clear what practical effect he can have.

Not all Democrats are on board with changing the filibuster rules. And should the Democrats clear the obstacles to passage of the voting rights laws, it could be too late to counter widespread voting restrictions passed in 19 states following former president Donald Trump’s 2020 loss and his lies — embraced by many in the GOP -- that the election was stolen through voter fraud.

Some voting rights advocates planned to boycott Biden’s speech. Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, known for her untiring voting rights work, also was skipping the event. The White House, meanwhile, sent out an unusually long list of attendees for the speech. Aides said Abrams had a conflict but didn’t explain further, though she tweeted support for the president.

Biden said before his trip the two had a scheduling mixup but had spoken and were “all on the same page.”

When asked what he was risking politically by speaking out when there aren’t enough votes to change the rules, he said: “I risk not saying what I believe. That’s what I risk. This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are going to be judged on where were they before and where were they after the vote. History is going to judge us.”

Voting rights advocates in Georgia and nationwide are increasingly anxious about what may happen in 2022 and beyond. They view the changes in many states as a subtler form of the ballot restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes once used to disenfranchise Black voters, a key Democratic constituency.

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