In his second sweeping speech on voting rights as president, Joe Biden made his most forceful rebuke to date of Senate Republicans for blocking laws that would protect voters. But six months on from Biden's first address calling for the bills to pass, they're still far from becoming a reality.
“I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered? Consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? You want to be the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? You want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Biden for the first time made it clear that he supports changing Senate rules to pass voting rights reform. That would require amending the way the Senate works for these specific bills so that they can pass with a simple majority instead of the current requirement of 60 votes to end a filibuster. Despite the president’s overt support for that change on Tuesday, it’s unlikely to happen. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have so far said they won’t vote for it, and several others are publicly undecided. Every Senate Democrat would need to vote to change the rules for the move to succeed.
“We have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” Biden said. “The filibuster is not being used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart. The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.”
Two landmark bills remain stalled in the Senate, and voting rights activists say they’ve yet to see a concrete plan from the White House on how they’ll get it passed. Biden’s remarks on Tuesday largely repeated his rhetoric from July 2021, when he gave a speech in Philadelphia, and from his calls on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
"I've been around the Senate a long time, and as vice president for eight years. I've never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice and is ready to speak for justice,” Biden said of Senate Republicans on Tuesday.
He added that he had even worked with Sen. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist Republican, to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act at one point.
He struck a much firmer tone with Republicans this week than he had last July, when Biden said he would be asking his “Republican friends — in Congress, in states, in cities, in counties — to stand up, for god’s sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our elections and the sacred right to vote.”
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta to give the speeches despite several prominent local voting rights leaders boycotting their event, calling on them to stay in DC and get the legislation passed.
“We were hoping that would be followed by the White House leaning into this issue of the legislation and the filibuster,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, of Biden’s July speech. “That did not happen, and that is why we're at the place where right now where what we're saying is we don't need another speech. What we need is actually a plan.”
The Freedom to Vote Act would standardize voter ID laws and permanently allow voting by mail, ban partisan gerrymandering, and set national standards for elections. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would reestablish the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by two Supreme Court decisions in the past decade, by specifically reinstating antidiscrimination protections for voters.
For some, Biden’s visit brought welcome attention to the restrictive voting measures being put in place in Georgia.
“We have been raising the alarm. It's not even canary in the coal mine anymore. It's like, the British are here. They’re not coming,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. “So this is an unqualified recognition that the fight for voting rights is the most important fight for our government right now, for our leaders right now.”
Ufot, like others on the ground, said she’s waiting to see what action follows this speech.
“If my president and my vice president see this as an important intervention on the path to getting us the voting rights protections that our country needs right now, then I’m with it. Go for it,” Ufot said. “But what I'm saying is that we need a plan. We need a plan. We need to share the plan to get legislation passed.”
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said he was “agnostic” on whether Biden and Harris should travel to Georgia on Tuesday. After the speech, he said in a statement that Biden “delivered a stirring speech today” but that “it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job.”