Biden Calls Voting Rights Bills ‘Imperative’ to Fight GOP Curbs

President Joe Biden delivered an emotional and combative speech in defense of broadening the right to vote, declaring it a “national imperative” for Congress to pass legislation that would counter new Republican laws in several states that curb ballot access.

“To me this is simple. This is election subversion,” Biden said Tuesday in Philadelphia, referring to the GOP state laws.

Republicans “want the ability to reject the final count and ignore the will of the people,” he said, noting that some of the laws would enable state legislatures to strip control of elections from local officials. “If their preferred candidate loses, they’re trying not only targeting people of color, they’re targeting voters of all races and backgrounds.”

“It’s unconscionable,” he said.

Biden’s trip to Philadelphia -- the city where he kicked off his presidential campaign -- comes as he faces growing pressure from progressive Democrats to fight Republican-led efforts to make it tougher to vote.

The latest flashpoint is in Texas, where most of the Democratic representatives in the state House left Monday for Washington in order to prevent the Republican majority from passing new voting curbs. The legislators will meet with congressional Democratic leaders and Vice President Kamala Harris this week, but they have warned they can’t stop the GOP voting bill indefinitely.

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House has passed two bills to address voting rights, but both have stalled in the Senate.

Civil rights leaders, activists and some Democrats have urged Biden to back a change to the filibuster rule, which enables Republicans to block legislation in the Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. Biden has so far resisted calls to eliminate the filibuster.

Republicans say that the voting restrictions are necessary to protect election integrity. The wave of legislation, though, is inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that he lost the November election because of rampant fraud, primarily in cities with large Black and Hispanic populations. Black voters turned out overwhelmingly for Biden during the Democratic primaries and the general election.

Biden called the state laws “an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, and an assault on who we are” and said “bullies and merchants of fears and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation” of the country.

He didn’t mention the Senate filibuster.

Last week, Biden met with the leaders of civil rights organizations at the White House to discuss voting rights legislation and police reform. They told Biden that there would be nonviolent protests during the remainder of the summer to call attention to voting rights.

Activists have been frustrated at Biden’s reluctance to endorse eliminating the filibuster. So far, he has only been able to address voting rights through executive actions that lack the teeth or sweep to respond to the state laws.

“We also have to be clear-eyed about the obstruction we face. Legislation is one tool, but not the only tool. It’s not the only measure of our obligation to defend democracy,” Biden said.

Biden Calls Voting Rights Bills ‘Imperative’ to Fight GOP Curbs

He cited Attorney General Merrick Garland’s June announcement to double staff working on voting rights issues and to challenge the restrictive state laws in court.

“The focus will be on dismantling racially discriminatory laws, like the recent challenge to Georgia’s vicious anti-voting law. The Department of Justice will do so with a voting rights division, that at my request, is doubling its size in enforcement staff,” Biden said.

Still civil rights groups have indicated that they will continue to pressure Biden and Congress to support a modification of the filibuster to get the bills passed. Al Sharpton, in comments to reporters in Philadelphia after Biden’s speech, said he reiterated to Biden that he wanted him to change his position on the procedure. He said the president “didn’t commit” on supporting a modification.

“He said we’re still working through our position on that, so he’s noncommittal,” Sharpton said. “You’ve got to do a workaround or change the filibuster, otherwise all of what he said and we’ve been saying is at risk here. And that’s why I wanted to be here. I thought it was monumental that he did this.”

Sharpton, leader of the National Action Network, was among civil rights leaders that met with Biden at the White House last week. Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also applauded Biden’s speech, though he called on the White House and Congress to do more to pass the bills. Henderson also participated in the meeting last week.

Biden and Harris “must do everything possible” to ensure the voting rights legislation passes, Henderson said in a statement. “Even if that means supporting the change of archaic Senate rules to protect our freedom to vote.”

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