President Biden plans to renew his push for congressional action to protect voting rights in a speech in Georgia on Tuesday as the Democratic Party’s proposed federal legislation has stalled and the president faces growing pressure to intervene.
Biden is expected to throw his support behind changing the filibuster to make it easier to pass voting rights bills and to ensure that “it can be restored and this basic right is defended,” according to a White House official, who provided a preview of Biden’s remarks on the condition of anonymity.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation,” Biden will say according to prepared remarks shared by the White House. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand.”
But some activists, frustrated by the lack of action on the issue, plan to skip the remarks, arguing that Biden’s time is better spent brokering a plan to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate instead of giving another speech.
Biden will be joined by Vice President Harris, who has been the administration’s point person on voting rights, for a speech at the Atlanta University Center. The speech will take place in the district formerly represented by the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, in a state that has been a focal point in the fight over voting rights.
“He wouldn’t be going to Georgia tomorrow — a place where there is an enormous history of civil rights leaders, of his friend John Lewis — advocating for voting rights, if he wasn’t ready and prepared to elevate this issue and continue to fight for it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
Biden has been under pressure to more aggressively combat threats to voting rights, which has been one of the core promises of his presidency. In a July speech, he described the fight against Republican-led restrictive voting laws in states including Georgia as the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
“I think all of us want to see the White House do as much as they can. Pull every stop, press every lever to get this done,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, a veteran Democratic strategist who will attend the speech in Atlanta. “Because without us all being able to have our votes counted and our votes honored, then nothing else in our democracy matters. And what we saw on Jan. 6 of 2021 is just the tip of the iceberg.”
In the Senate, Democrats have pushed forward on two voting rights bills that have been blocked by Republicans using the filibuster: The Freedom To Vote Act would set new minimum standards for early and mail-in voting, among other provisions. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to restore major elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said that the Senate will vote no later than Jan. 17 on changing Senate rules if Republicans continue to block voting rights legislation.
“We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us,” Schumer said in a letter to his caucus. “But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.”
But in order to change Senate rules, all Democrats need to be on board. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have repeatedly defended the legislative filibuster and may not be open to amending it, despite supporting the voting legislation itself.
“As she has throughout her time in the U.S. House and Senate, Senator Sinema also continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government,” Hannah Hurley, a spokeswoman for Sinema, said in a statement.
Biden and Democrats have been facing increasing pressure by advocates of the voting bills to either change Senate rules to eradicate the filibuster or to carve out an exemption for some bills, including measures focused on voting rights.
Psaki declined to say whether Biden in recent weeks had been engaged in conversations with senators about voting rights legislation or potential rules changes.
While Republicans have cast Democratic aims as a planned federal takeover of elections, Democrats, including Biden and Harris, have been under increasing pressure to more forcefully address the issue of voting rights.
Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, said some policymakers have treated this issue “in a very lackluster way.”
“What we witnessed on Jan. 6 was an attack on our democracy. But what we witnessed after Jan. 6, with state legislative bodies across the country passing voter suppression legislation, was also an attack on our democracy,” said Johnson, who will attend Biden’s speech in Atlanta on Tuesday. “We’re not asking for anything unusual. The Constitution guarantees a right to vote and we should ensure that the right is protected.”
Melanie Campbell, the CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said that she hoped Biden and Harris would hold similar speeches in other states where laws have been passed to restrict voting.
“Don’t stop in Georgia. Go to Arizona. Go to these places where these laws have been passed in 19 states … in order for people to really see what’s going on. They have the power of the bully pulpit to help elevate issues,” she said in an interview.
But Campbell, who also planned to attend Biden’s remarks on Tuesday, said that speeches are not a substitute for legislative action.
Ahead of the president and vice president’s visit, some voting rights groups in Georgia have voiced opposition to Biden’s planned approach.
A number of organizations — including Black Voters Matter, the Asian American Advocacy Fund and the New Georgia Project Action Fund — called on Biden and Harris to cancel their trip if they did not plan to announce a “finalized voting rights plan that will pass both chambers, not be stopped by the filibuster, and be signed into law.”
On Monday, leaders of those groups said they would not attend Biden’s speech.
LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said she and other activists were not skipping the remarks to be “antagonistic” or “combative,” but she said she wanted to convey the urgency of the moment.
“We have been screaming, we have been yelling, we have been talking about this for over a year,” said Brown.
“We beg you to stay in Washington tomorrow because we don’t need you here in Georgia. We’ve got it here in Georgia, and we always do,” Phi Nguyen, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, said on Monday.
Members of the family of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. will attend the speech, including King’s eldest living son, Martin Luther King III. King and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, will also meet with President Biden in Atlanta.
In a statement, King said he supports Georgia activists who have declined to attend Biden’s speech, noting that “they’re frustrated after a year of inaction and we are too.”
King said that in his meeting with Biden he plans to “convey that his visit cannot be a mere formality.”
“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.
NPR’s Deirdre Walsh contributed reporting.