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Biden, Harris push voting rights in Atlanta as Senate preps for rules fight

Senate preps for battle over filibuster rules

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris pause to speak to reporters as they leave the Capitol on Jan. 6.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris pause to speak to reporters as they leave the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and numerous members of Congress traveled Tuesday to Atlanta to make the case for changing the way the Senate operates in order to pass voting rights legislation.

“We have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” if Republican senators continue to block two election overhaul bills, the president said.

“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress over the last two months,” he added. “I’m tired of being quiet.”

Biden said the Senate’s votes on election overhaul legislation this week “will mark a turning point in this nation,” and he invoked the civil rights battles of the past to frame the moment.

“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice. Do you want to be on the side of [Martin Luther King Jr.] or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?” he said. “Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”

The president repeated calls for Republicans to join in passing the two measures, but as a White House official previewed earlier in the day, Biden renewed his recent support for changing the Senate rules to advance legislation in support of voting rights.

There is no reason to expect that anyone in the GOP will change positions based on Biden’s remarks or his visit to Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was home to King’s ministry and is the current spiritual home to pastor and Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.

Senate Democrats were preparing their proposed path forward on changing the Senate’s procedures, expecting that Republicans will again block the bill known as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and a separate, more sweeping piece of election overhaul legislation, later this week.

Following a virtual Democratic Caucus lunch Tuesday, Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Angus King, I-Maine, countered the argument that the underlying bills were partisan efforts designed to elect more Democrats.

The senators noted that the procedures the commonwealth of Virginia implemented to expand the franchise for the 2021 gubernatorial election led to increased turnout and a Republican being elected governor.

“You make it easier for people to vote and you pull obstacles out of their way, and a whole lot more people vote, and guess what? It can be good for Republicans. … It can be good for Democrats,” Kaine told reporters. “It’s good for democracy, and that’s why we need to do this.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has promised that the chamber would consider such changes by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, now less than a week away.

Senate Republicans have portrayed the move as a Democratic power play that would alter the chamber’s special status.

Schumer said action could come as soon as Wednesday. But Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., seem nowhere close to voting to change the rules with a simple majority vote in a way that would lead to the voting rights measures passing the Senate.

“I truly believe in my heart of hearts, for the sake of our country, that we have to have that ability for the minority,” Manchin said Tuesday, ostensibly referring to the minority party’s ability to block legislation in the Senate. “To make this place work better, we do need some rule changes and I think the Democrats or Republicans can agree on that because both are frustrated. … The motion to proceed should be a simple majority,”  he said, adding that he hoped for bipartisan agreement on changing the current 60-vote requirement to cut off debate to a three-fifths requirement of those present.

But neither of those changes, nor Manchin’s proposals for priority consideration of bills with bipartisan support at the committee level, would rise to the level that Democratic activists would prefer.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz admitted to having reversed his position on eliminating the legislative filibuster. He said he supported doing away with it when Donald Trump was president because he thought the Democrats would get rid of it too. (Trump consistently advocated eliminating the 60-vote requirement.)

“If Manchin and Sinema hold, and I hope and pray that they do, it will protect this institution. And if the Democrats protect this institution, I think the Republicans should as well,” Cruz said. “The Republicans had the White House, the Senate and the House. We had every ability to do exactly what Chuck Schumer wants to do right now, and the Republican Party didn’t.”

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking Republican on the Rules and Administration Committee, said Tuesday that the discussion might be different if Democrats were talking about changing Senate rules to take effect in the next Congress, without knowing which party would be in control then.

Blunt, who is retiring this year, led Senate Republicans in proposing to eliminate the 60-vote requirement for limiting debate on proceeding to bills in 2016, when he and Schumer led the Rules panel.

“When Democrats start making proposals like that, I think you’d have a reasonable reason to assume that they’re interested in the long-term functioning of he Senate rather than the short-term advantage of the moment,” Blunt said. “And I don’t hear any of that discussion going on.”

On Monday, in an early preview of the GOP reaction, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled 18 GOP-favored bills on an array of issues, including sanctions on China, immigration policy and nullifying the Biden administration’s COVID-19 policies. The Kentucky Republican indicated to The Wall Street Journal that these were the sorts of bills that might be called up in a Senate with a simple majority process to limit debate on proceeding to legislation.

On the floor, Schumer offered to hold up-or-down votes on all of the 18 bills on McConnell’s list, if the Republicans would have agreed to up-or-down votes on the two Democratic-favored election bills. McConnell rejected that offer.

“Our caucus strongly disagrees with the Republican bills on this list, but for the sake of our democracy and getting to a majority vote on voting rights, we are willing to vote,” Schumer said in response to the McConnell list.

Joining Biden and Harris in Atlanta on Tuesday were a number of Democratic members of the House and Senate, most notably Georgia’s two Democratic senators, Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who each won runoff elections in January — victories that made Schumer the majority leader of a 50-50 Senate.

“Voting rights, as I’ve been saying, is the most important thing we can do, and anything that can happen that will continue to shine a bright light on the urgency of this issue is important,” Warnock said Monday on Capitol Hill.

Also on hand from the Senate were three of the leading advocates for changing the rules to get the election legislation passed: Rules and Administration Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Alex Padilla of California.

“When barriers to voting are targeted at specific groups of Americans — Black Americans, Native Americans, young voters and college students — it’s pure partisan manipulation and corrupts the election,” Merkley said in a statement. “It’s absolutely wrong. Everyone deserves the same chance to cast our ballots and know our vote will count. And certainly, partisan officials shouldn’t be able to toss out election results because they don’t like the voters’ choice.”

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