President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for a change to the filibuster in order to send voting rights legislation to his desk, harshly condemning congressional inaction nearly one year into a presidency that has been routinely stymied by a dysfunctional legislature.
The U.S. Senate, Biden said in a major speech on voting rights in Atlanta, has been “rendered a shell of its former self”—and, he said, must be reformed to save democracy itself.
“The threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting-rights bills,” Biden said, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris. “We have no option but to change the Senate rules—including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
Biden vowed that the legislation—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—would come to a vote in the coming weeks, and would successfully face down “Jim Crow 2.0” and its backers, whom Biden likened to segregationist leaders of the past like George Wallace and Bull Connor.
“The filibuster has been weaponized and abused,” Biden said, to create a Senate where there are “50 presidents.” The only solution, said Biden, is one that eliminates the ability of a single senator to hold back a majority vote on legislation, “whichever way [the rules] need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights”
A White House official described the speech as coming at “one of the rare moments in a country’s history when time stops and the essential is immediately ripped away from the trivial.” That moment, the official said, is particularly crucial so close to the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by rioters who sought to overturn the certification of Biden’s own victory. During another major address last week marking that event, Biden warned that American democracy is still imperiled, in part due to the failure to protect voting rights nationwide.
Biden himself pointed to the siege of the Capitol—a moment “when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy”—as a potential precursor to further degradation of the democratic process if the right to vote is not protected.
“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,” Biden said. “And so the question is, where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”
But Biden, despite being a “creature of the Senate,” in the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week, has failed to break the filibuster’s stranglehold on numerous pieces of legislation that his administration has backed, from voting rights legislation to bills that would sanctify Roe v. Wade into federal law. Multiple Democratic senators have voiced concerns about whittling down the filibuster in order to pass the voting rights bills, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), both of whom have been able to bring down Biden’s trillion-dollar “Build Back Better” legislation nearly single-handedly.
Voting-rights advocates, mindful of the other major administration priorities that have been scuttled by the Senate filibuster since Biden took office, aren’t necessarily convinced that yet another firm scolding from the president in the form of a speech will be enough to stir the body into action.
Nabilah Islam, a Georgia-based progressive organizer and a current candidate for state senate, told The Daily Beast that Biden needs to “do both”—that is, simultaneously make the public case for voting rights legislation in hotspots like Georgia while deploying every tool available to move reforms through Congress.
“I always welcome a visit from the president and vice president,” said Islam. “That being said, I also recognize and understand why some of these voting rights organizations want more from this administration… people on the ground are getting antsy and frustrated that something isn’t happening sooner.”
“It’s members of Congress that need to feel the pressure, the full weight of the presidency—they are the ones standing in the way.”
Other civil rights leaders, though encouraged by the president’s appearance on Tuesday, called the speech only a “first step” in addressing a nationwide push by Republicans to make voting more difficult.
“We see his speech as a critical first step in a series of actions to move voting rights legislation forward,” said Martin Luther King III, who also voiced support for the numerous Georgia-based groups that decided not to attend the president’s speech. King, the oldest son of the late civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, said that the groups are understandably “frustrated after a year of inaction.”
Among those who did not appear at Tuesday’s event was perhaps the most prominent voting-rights activist in Georgia: Stacey Abrams, the former Senate minority leader and current Democratic candidate for governor who was once floated as a potential running mate for Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
The no-show was chalked up to a scheduling conflict, although a source familiar with the planning of Tuesday’s events said that invitations to dignitaries were “normally late,” calling the planning “like, a shitshow.”
Following the speech, other leaders echoed Islam’s concerns that Biden had not yet demonstrated that he could walk and chew gum at the same time.
“Our democracy stands in its final hour,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “Unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency around voting rights as he did for BBB and infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable. While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job. Voting rights should not simply be a priority—it must be THE priority.”
King told The Daily Beast that the real meat of Biden’s speech would come after it concluded.
“We’ve seen what’s possible when President Biden uses the full weight of his office to deliver for bridges, and now we need to see him do the same for voting rights,” King said. “We are hopeful that after tomorrow’s trip to our home state, the president will honor my father’s legacy by traveling back to Washington and using every political chip he has to ensure the filibuster doesn’t obstruct the right to vote for Black and brown Americans.”
—with additional reporting from Sam Brodey