In a speech in Atlanta, Biden gave his support to Democrats pushing to alter Senate rules to fight voter suppression.
It seems like barely any time has passed since the last major U.S. election — and what a shit show that was. Throughout the 2020 presidential race, former President Donald Trump and Republicans sought to suppress voters, and with the 2022 midterms looming, Republicans are once again going after voting rights. But finally, President Biden is ready to back Democratic lawmakers in one key strategy to protect voting rights: changing the Senate filibuster.
The president has been under pressure from his own party to either completely eliminate or radically alter the Senate filibuster for months. In December, the issue became especially pertinent as state-level Republicans prepared to push a ton of new voting restrictions. On Tuesday, Biden at last openly endorsed changing the rules.
During a speech in Atlanta, he referenced the Jan. 6 insurrection, stating, “The violent mob of January 6, empowered and encouraged by a defeated former president, sought to win through violence what he had lost at the ballot box. To impose the will of a mob. To overturn free and fair election...They failed. But democracy’s victory was not certain. Nor was democracy’s future.”
Biden went on to speak about Republican attempts to suppress voting rights nationwide and called on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. Eventually, Biden told the crowd, “The threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass the voting rights bill. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster.” He continued, “I support changing our Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed.”
“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. “I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And so the question is: where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”
Biden’s position isn’t entirely unexpected. Last month, he said that “if the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed is the filibuster, I support making the exception for voting rights for the filibuster.” Still, this speech is a big deal, as it makes it unquestionably clear that Democratic lawmakers have Biden’s support on this issue.
Plus, Biden’s speech comes less than a week before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) Martin Luther King Jr. Day deadline to either pass a stalled voting rights bill or vote on filibuster changes. Per the Associated Press, the voting rights bill has been stalled by a Republican filibuster, and Democrats aren’t able to get the 60 votes needed to advance the package regardless.
If you’re not familiar with filibusters, all you need to know is that they only exist in the Senate. And Indivisible Civics, a progressive organization, noted that while both parties have used filibusters, “it has been weaponized by a greater extent than ever before by Republicans in order to kill landmark pieces of legislation, from civil rights to gun violence prevention and beyond.”
In a letter, Schumer wrote, “Let me be clear: Jan. 6 was a symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process, and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm.”
It’s extremely unlikely that the filibuster will be abolished in its entirety. Although some Democratic lawmakers have called for this, not everyone supports even slightly changing the filibuster rules (looking at you, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema). But how, exactly, the filibuster will change is also unclear. Previously, Biden said he supported bringing back the talking filibuster where someone actually has to hold the floor to delay a bill. Right now, a senator can filibuster by just refusing to yield the floor unless at least 60 colleagues vote to end the debate on a bill and carry on to the vote.
While some celebrated Biden’s speech, others are still upset about how long it took to get to this point. A coalition of voting rights activists in Georgia — including the Asian American Advocacy Fund, Black Voters Matter, GALEO Impact Fund Inc. and New Georgia Project Action Fund — planned to skip Biden’s speech.
Last week, the coalition released a letter telling Biden not to come to Atlanta without a “finalized plan”, stating they will “reject any visit by President Biden that does not include an announcement of a finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law; anything less is insufficient and unwelcome”
“Georgia voters made history and made their voices heard, overcoming obstacles, threats, and suppressive laws to deliver the White House and the US Senate,” the coalition also stated. “In return, a visit has been forced on them, requiring them to accept political platitudes and repetitious, bland promises. Such an empty gesture, without concrete action, without signs of real, tangible work, is unacceptable.”