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Biden Senate

Biden Was Too Slow to Push the Senate for Voting Rights

On Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden employed the bully pulpit—ostensibly one of the most powerful instruments in the executive toolbox—to press the Senate to pass voting rights legislation as soon as possible, in order to counteract a spate of measures that are either being enacted or considered in Republican-led states that may suppress voter turnout,…

On Tuesday afternoon, President Joe Biden employed the bully pulpitostensibly one of the most powerful instruments in the executive toolboxto press the Senate to pass voting rights legislation as soon as possible, in order to counteract a spate of measures that are either being enacted or considered in Republican-led states that may suppress voter turnout, as well as to fulfill a key campaign promise while Democrats still hold the majority in Congress.

Biden, a self-proclaimed institutionalist who served for decades in the Senate, for the first time endorsed changing Senate rules to allow voting rights legislation to be passed with a simple majority. The Senate filibuster was used by the Senate Republicans to block voting rights bills multiple times last year.

” I believe that the threat to democracy is so serious that we must find a solution to passing these voting rights legislations. Biden stated that there is no other option than to amend the Senate rules. This includes getting rid of the filibuster. “Today, I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed.”

Senate Republicans blocked three separate voting rights bills last year: the For the People Act, a sweeping elections and campaign reform bill; the Freedom to Vote Act, a slightly less sweeping elections and campaign reform bill crafted by Democrats with the ultimately futile goal of obtaining Republican support; and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill restoring a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court, which thus far is supported by just one Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski. Democrats must bypass the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation. All together now: Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats only hold 50 seats. That means that without support from at least 10 Republicans, bills are dead on arrival. As expected, the Senate’s Republicans don’t view restrictions on voting rights passed by Republican legislatures as an existential threat.

Activists have been calling on Biden to take voting rights more seriously for the past year. “I believe there is a lot frustration that it took a whole year to get to this point. However, I believe that it is better to be late than never and that it is not too late,” stated Sean Eldridge (the president and founder) of Stand Up America, which has advocated for the elimination of filibuster.

Biden’s speech may or may not make a difference with senators waffling on whether to change the rules, but the onus is still on lawmakers to pass voting rights legislation. “While President Biden gave a moving speech today, it is time for the administration to follow through with their words and pass voting rights legislation. In a statement following Biden’s comments, Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP said that voting rights shouldn’t be just a priority. It must be THE priority.”

Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader and chair of the Drum Major Institute, said in a statement after the speech that “we need to see a plan” from Biden.

“He can’t rest this call at the feet of the Senate and walk away–he must use the full power of his office to ensure this Jim Crow relic finally falls,” King said. “We will be watching closely and mobilizing to ensure his speech is backed by the full power and influence of his office.”

Even before the start of the new year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had been pushing to “restore the Senate,” that is, return it to a bygone era of relative functionality. A group of moderate Democrats, including Manchin, have met frequently in recent weeks to discuss potential rules changes. Last week, Schumer announced that Democrats would be moving forward with voting rights legislation, regardless of where Republicans landed on the issue, culminating with a debate and potential vote on some rules change by January 17, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Schumer has remained focused on voting rights in the days since; during Democrats’ weekly caucus lunch, which has recently gone virtual in the wake of the omicron variant, the Democratic leader hosted Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of How Democracies Die, to talk about the need to pass voting rights legislation. Schumer stated that he would bring back legislation to the Senate’s floor “to fight back against the threats and protect the rights of the voters” in remarks made on Tuesday. “If Republicans continue to hijack the rules of the Senate to prevent voting rights from happening, if they continue paralyzing this chamber to the point where we’re helpless to fight back against the Big Lie, we must consider the necessary steps we can take so the Senate can adapt and act.”

Biden had previously urged Congress to vote on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but Tuesday marked the first time that he openly advocated for changing Senate rules to pass the legislation. “I have been having these silent conversations with members Congress for two months. Biden stated, “I’m tired being quiet!”

Changing Senate rules can be a finicky business, however. Senators need to reach a 67-vote threshold to formally alter the rules, a nigh impossibility given the current polarized nature of the Senate. They can also use a procedural trick known as the “nuclear alternative” to amend Senate precedents with a simple majority. However, this requires all 50 Democratic senators to be on board with any changes. Two senators, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, have stated that they oppose the elimination of the filibuster. This makes Biden’s job more difficult.

“The presidency is turning on microphones when he knows everyone’s going to listen. It’s unlikely that it will change votes,” stated Casey Burgat of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “This isn’t the LBJ era, where he grabs [Manchin] by the coattails and persuades him that this is in his best interest as a senator.”

Manchin has also raised concerns about making any reforms without Republican support. “We need to make some important rules changes. It is possible to do this together. You can’t change the rules unless two-thirds of those present are there, so Democrats or Republicans should work together to improve the functioning of the place. Manchin stated that getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work more efficiently.

Manchin later on Tuesday described some potential rules changes that he would support, such as circumventing the 60-vote threshold by requiring three-fifths of everyone in attendance to support a bill in order for it to advance. So if only 90 senators were in attendance, only 54 votes would be needed to advance a bill, for example. Another change would pertain to the motion to proceed, a vehicle by which the Senate can take up a bill for consideration and debate. A motion to proceed may be subject to a “cloture vote”–basically, it is possible for the minority party to block a bill being brought up for discussion. Manchin suggested that a motion to proceed not be subject to a cloture vote, so only 51 votes would be necessary to open debate.

“There’s a lot of good things that can be done to make the place work,” Manchin told Lisa Desjardins of PBS NewsHour. Voting is important. It’s a be

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