ATLANTA, Jan 11 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Tuesday made a full-throated appeal for U.S. voting rights legislation stalled in Congress and said Democratic lawmakers should make a major change in Senate rules to override Republican opposition.
In a speech designed to breathe life into the fight to pass federal voting laws and convince skeptical Democratic activists of his commitment, Biden called Republicans cowardly and he also committed to changing the U.S. Senate’s “filibuster” rule to pass legislation.
Calling it a “battle for the soul of America,” Biden put the voting rights effort on par with the fight against segregation by slain civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
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Republicans must choose which side of history they want to be on, Biden said, contrasting American civil rights heroes with some of U.S. history’s most notorious white supremacists.
“Do you want to be on the side of Martin Luther King or George Wallace?,” Biden asked, referring to the segregationist former Alabama governor. “Do you want to be on the side of (former congressman) John Lewis or Bull Connor? The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Connor was a commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, and Davis the head of the pro-slavery Confederate States during the U.S. civil war.
Biden likened the voting rights effort to the struggle against the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 by supporters of former President Donald Trump, an attack Biden called an “attempted coup.”
His tone echoed remarks last week, on the one year anniversary of the attacks, reflecting a new White House calculus after a year focused on working with Republicans.
“Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president, to protect America’s right to vote. Not one,” Biden said, referring to Trump and voting rights.
Trump has said the 2020 election was stolen by Biden’s Democrats through voter fraud, despite recounts and investigations that found no evidence to back his claim. Since then, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Critics say these measures disproportionately affect minorities.
Before Biden spoke, there was a moment of solemnity as he and Vice President Kamala Harris stood before King’s gravesite with King’s family standing nearby, heads bowed. After the ceremony, Biden and Harris spoke nearby at the combined campus of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, two historically Black schools.
Biden wants to build public support for federal legislation to strengthen voting rights, particularly the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both have so far withered under united opposition from Republicans, who argue they would impose questionable national standards on local elections.
U.S. President Joe Biden waves as he returns via Marine One to the White House in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Biden said if no breakthrough on the legislation can be achieved, lawmakers in the Senate should “change the rules including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
The filibuster is a parliamentary maneuver to require a 60-vote majority in the Senate for passage instead of a simple majority.
“Sadly the United States Senate, designed to be the greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self,” Biden said.
Republicans quickly criticized Biden’s filibuster proposal as overreach.
“What the Democrats have coined a ‘voting rights’ bill is really just a partisan, political power grab. And now they want to eliminate the filibuster in order to advance this terrible legislation, which would only compound confusion in our election process,” Senator Mike Crapo said after Biden’s speech. L1N2TR2YV
It was Biden’s most direct plea to date for the Senate to change its rules. Whether the votes exist among Democrats to change the rule remains unclear.
Biden said he had been having quiet conversations with lawmakers about the legislation in recent months but that “I’m tired of being quiet.”
Harris, who introduced Biden, warned that without national legislation, newly passed laws in Republican states could impact as many as 55 million Americans.
“If we stand idly by our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come,” said Harris.
Georgia was a battleground state in the 2020 election, and Democrats won two crucial U.S. Senate seats in runoff contests in January 2021 that gave them effective control of the chamber. Later in the year, the Republican-led state legislature approved sweeping voting restrictions. The U.S. Justice Department sued, saying the law infringes the rights of Black voters.
Democrats are girding themselves for tough 2022 congressional elections that could strip them of their majority and the chance to change federal voting laws.
Many civil rights activists say Biden should have done more during his first year in office to push for reforms, and some, including Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, did not attend his speech.
Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that he spoke to Abrams and despite a schedule mix-up, they are “on the same page.”
(This story refiles to correct year in paragraph seven)
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Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Merdie Nzanga, Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason, Nandita Bose and Susan Heavey; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman and David Gregorio
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