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Biden takes voting rights push to Philadelphia as Texas Democrats make Capitol Hill rounds

Harris, Schumer meet with Lone Star State visitors as Republicans cry foul

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., center, meets with Democratic members of the Texas State Legislature in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., center, meets with Democratic members of the Texas State Legislature in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Joe Biden cast the threat to democratic institutions from deceitful statements about the 2020 elections and restricting voting rights in some of the starkest terms of his presidency on Tuesday.

“Make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country. It gives me no pleasure to say this. I never thought in my entire career I’d ever have to say it,” the president said in a much-anticipated speech in Philadelphia. “But I swore an oath to you, to God, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That’s an oath that forms a sacred trust to defend Americans from all threats, both foreign and domestic.”

Biden said “the assault on free and fair elections is just such a threat.”

While he spoke to Democratic legislative efforts that currently have no path forward in the Senate — like the sweeping House-passed election and campaign finance overhaul measure — he also called for a renewed public campaign on the issue of voting rights.

“We have to … forge a coalition of Americans of every background and political party, the advocates, the students, the faith leaders, the labor leaders, the business executives, to raise the urgency of this moment. Because as much as people know they are screwing around with the election process, I don’t think that most people think this is about who gets to count what vote counts literally, not figuratively,” the president said.

Biden’s speech took place as Democrats from the Texas Legislature who fled their state to stymie efforts to pass voting restrictions there met with party members on Capitol Hill, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

Republicans rejected the premise of much of Biden’s speech, particularly the parts pertaining to election law. That included some who supported the certification of 2020 Electoral College votes of Pennsylvania and other states that supporters of former President Donald Trump sought to contest on Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol insurrection.

“Suggesting that election integrity measures such as voter ID and prohibitions on ballot harvesting are reminiscent of Jim Crow is false, offensive, and trivializes a dark period of actual systemic racism in parts of America, ” retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., said in a statement. “President Biden knows that the state laws he has attacked are in many cases less restrictive than that of his own home state of Delaware.”

Biden greeted members of the crowd at the National Constitution Center for more than a half-hour after concluding his formal remarks. Among his conversations was one with the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.

Sharpton told reporters in Philadelphia that he relayed to the president that he was “very happy to hear him bring up race. But we’re still waiting on the filibuster.” Sharpton said Biden replied that he was “still working on our position on that.”

The president so far has endorsed an effort to bring back the requirement to make senators stand and talk to filibuster legislation. But he has not supported broader efforts by Democrats to eliminate the 60-vote threshold in the Senate rules in their entirety.

Still, Senate Republican leaders saw no shortage of irony in the White House and Senate Democrats embracing the Texas state lawmakers, at the same time that many Democratic lawmakers and outside advocates are calling for eliminating the requirement for 60 votes to limit debate on legislative business.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota told reporters that it was his understanding the Texas Democrats were at the Capitol “to protest the fact that they’re being ran roughshod over in Texas, being cut out of the legislative process, the same Democrats who are trying to get rid of the legislative filibuster here in the United States Senate.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a similar observation.

“I’ve noticed that the Democrat minority … in the Texas Legislature is up here today, and it’s quite interesting to see the Democratic majority of the Senate concerned about minority rights in the state Senate in Texas. I guess if you live long enough, you’ll see almost anything around here,” the Kentucky Republican said before Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Harris held separate meetings with the state lawmakers.

At her meeting with the Texas Democrats, held at the American Federation of Teachers offices near the Capitol, Harris sought to put their decision to flee from their home state to thwart a quorum for consideration of GOP-backed voting legislation in the context of voting rights history.

“In 1867, Frederick Douglass appealed to … the United States Congress for the right for Black men to vote. 1913: Women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for the right to vote. 1965: Democrats and Republicans stood for the absolute American principle of all people having the right to vote and passed the Voting Rights Act,” the vice president said. “And 2021: the Texas Legislature came to Washington, D.C.”

A bipartisan move

As the voting rights issue lined up along partisan lines Tuesday, Biden was reaching across the aisle to fill a high-profile ambassadorship.

Former Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who endorsed Biden over Trump in 2020, will be the current president’s nominee to be ambassador to Turkey.

“With this nomination, the Biden Administration reaffirms the best tradition of American foreign policy and diplomacy: the credo that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge. U.S. foreign policy can and should be bipartisan,” Flake said in a statement. “That is my belief as well, and my commitment.”

Navigating relations with Ankara looks to be a daunting task. The Pentagon removed Turkey, a NATO ally, from the F-35 program in 2019 after Turkey bought Russian S-400 air defense systems over American objections.

Now, two years later, Turkey’s proximity to Afghanistan could provide key air access once the U.S. fully withdraws its forces. The U.S. is actively seeking ways to enhance its “over the horizon” capabilities in Afghanistan since it is losing its on-the-ground intelligence on terrorist activity as the drawdown, which is nearly complete, continues.

The intent to nominate Flake, a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, likely demonstrates Biden’s confidence in the former senator.

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a friend and frequent congressional traveling companion of Flake’s, was among the Democrats quick to praise the pending nomination.

“In the six years that we served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jeff and I traveled to more than a dozen countries, we legislated together repeatedly, and worked through dozens of hearings together. From meetings with NATO allies to meetings with African leaders, I was always impressed with his insights, his character, his skills and his thoughtfulness,” Coons said.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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