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Black leaders to push Biden White House for more voting rights muscle

As the president tries to drive his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill through the Senate, he has been reluctant to raise pressure on Democrats.
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WASHINGTON — Black leaders plan to tell White House officials at a private meeting this week that it is past time for President Joe Biden to put his full weight behind voting rights legislation.

"We want them to be more aggressive and public about it — time is running out," said the founder of the National Action Network, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who hosts MSNBC's "PoliticsNation."

"While we are procrastinating, states are changing their laws," he added. "This is bigger than just a race issue. We're talking about undermining the democracy."

At a moment when Biden is trying to drive his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill through the 50-50 Senate, he has been reluctant to put public pressure on Democratic senators to find a way to slip voting rights legislation around a Republican filibuster.

But he owes his victory in the election last year in large part to Black voters, who see their rights under attack from Republican-led legislatures and a conservative Supreme Court, and laws that will affect the makeup of congressional districts and ballot access in next year's midterm elections are already taking effect.

That is a major concern on Capitol Hill, where Democratic senators focused on voting rights, not the Build Back Better measure, at their weekly luncheon Tuesday, said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said in an interview that he thought about voting against a measure to raise the debt limit to force action on voting rights. He said he chose not to risk driving the country toward default.

"Voting rights needs to be the very next thing we take up," Warnock said. "It needs to be the very next thing. And in fact, we should not go home for recess until we at least have a defined and clear path for how we're going to pass voting rights."

White House officials, who have watched a pair of voting rights bills stall in the Senate, have told activists that Democrats will "out-organize" Republicans to overcome voting restrictions, but the activists say that is an "insulting" tack that ignores both a moral imperative to protect voting rights and the political reality of a tough election environment for Democrats.

It is a "horrendous strategy" that is "morally and ideologically bankrupt," said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who has participated in past White House meetings with activists but will not be at this week's session.

"It's going to lose them both chambers of Congress," he said, adding, "It's insulting to Black voters."

The meeting planned for this week, which is expected to take place Wednesday or Thursday, will include senior aides to Biden, voting rights activists said.

The White House did not respond to emails and texts seeking comment for this article.

Vice President Kamala Harris is the White House's point person on voting rights, and the attention of Biden's aides could be a sign that the issue is moving up his list of priorities. Activists hailed Biden's speech on the topic in July as a strong call to action to protect ballot access.

"It's up to all of us to protect that right," Biden said. "This is a test of our time."

But, to activists' consternation, Biden did not ask the Senate to eliminate or revise its filibuster rule. He blamed Republicans for obstructing voting rights legislation while praising Democrats — some of whom support the filibuster — for standing united in favor of the substance of the effort.

The filibuster is a tricky political issue for Biden for several reasons: First, he was an ardent advocate of the Senate's "cloture" rule, which requires 60 votes to move forward on legislation, when he was a senator; second, he promised on the campaign trail that he would seek bipartisanship and protect institutional norms; and third, calling out senators and their rules could backfire.

And while Biden has signaled that he is open to supporting revising the filibuster, he has also said he fears he would hurt his vote count for the Build Back Better measure if he publicly endorses a change that shines more of a spotlight on holdout Democratic senators.

Biden met privately Monday with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the most vocal Democratic defender of the filibuster, and several Democratic senators huddled with Manchin on Tuesday to discuss finding a way around the filibuster for voting rights — either through amending Senate rules or with a new law. Supporters of that approach have pointed out that Congress and Biden wrote a special law this month to sidestep the filibuster to raise the debt limit.

But that required Republicans to provide 10 votes to clear the way for the debt limit law, and there is little chance that the GOP would go along with voting rights legislation that could hamper its electoral efforts in the midterms and beyond.

Ultimately, voting rights activists said, it is up to Biden to put more pressure on Senate Democrats to fall in line.

"The frustration that many African Americans, including myself, are feeling right now is there has not been enough of a priority placed on ensuring that the rights of voters are protected," said Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, who plans to attend the session with top White House officials. "It has not been a priority for this administration."

Johnson, who will meet virtually Wednesday with a group of Senate Democrats who have "incomplete" grades on a recent NAACP scorecard because they have not committed to altering the Senate's rules, was also critical of the Senate stalemate in a telephone interview with NBC News.

Johnson said the Senate "must do their job, and they must adopt voting-rights protections."

It is not that the activists oppose the rest of Biden's agenda — Johnson put out a statement backing Build Back Better on Monday — but rather that they are shocked that Biden has not put more muscle behind voting rights measures. They noted that he visited Capitol Hill repeatedly when his infrastructure law was hanging by a thread and that he has been actively engaged, behind the scenes and publicly, in trying to strike a deal on Build Back Better.

"We've simply not seen the kind of leadership that we need to see out of the White House," Albright said. "It's not just that [Biden's] fallen short of what other presidents have done. He's falling short of his own actions on other legislation."

While Manchin is the most vocal defender of the filibuster, the set of recalcitrants is larger than just him. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a co-sponsor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require more jurisdictions to get Justice Department pre-clearance for changes to voting laws, remains a staunch defender of the filibuster.

Several other Democrats either support keeping the filibuster intact or have not committed to change it to legislate on voting rights.

Sharpton said there are two things White House officials could say to satisfy him at this week's meeting.

"They can say they worked out something with Manchin and Sinema, or they could say the president is going to publicly say he is for the filibuster reform," he said.