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Biden to focus on Trump, forgo major voting rights push in Jan. 6 speech

Though the top Senate Democrat has sought to tie a legislative push to the anniversary of the attack, the president plans a separate speech on voting rights next week in Atlanta.
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President Joe Biden speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Dec. 22, 2021.Samuel Corum / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s speech on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is shaping up as a contrast to the approach of his top ally in the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, according to descriptions of his remarks from White House officials.

While the two Democrats are striving toward the same goal — passing legislation aimed at expanding voting rights and overhauling state election processes — Biden does not plan to make the issue a core focus of his speech on Thursday, the officials said.

Instead, the president plans to focus his remarks on what he sees as a sweeping attack on American democracy aimed at overturning his election and perpetuated by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump — to whom he refers simply as “the former president” in a draft of his speech circulating just hours before he’s scheduled to deliver it Thursday, White House officials said.

Biden will give a more passing reference to voting rights on Thursday, and save the bulk of his comments on the issue for a separate speech he’ll deliver next week in Atlanta, which the White House announced Wednesday.

The president’s separation of Jan. 6 and Democrats’ voting rights legislation is in line with how some of his allies believe he should handle two issues they see as critical to American democracy, though they see the issues as dramatically different.

Their view is that voting rights legislation is about trying to stop the disenfranchisement of voters of color, while Jan. 6 is about a violent attempt by some Americans to upend the country’s democratic election process by trying to install their favored candidate. Linking the one-year anniversary and voting rights, as one Biden ally put it, “does a disservice to both issues.”

Schumer, however, has vowed to use Jan. 6 as a high-profile launchpad for a sustained campaign to try to secure one of the Democratic Party’s top priorities, with plans to use the anniversary to draw attention to federal voting legislation. A bill that would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed the House in August but has stalled in the closely divided Senate where most bills require 60 votes to pass. The Freedom to Vote Act — a bill crafted by a group of Democratic senators — includes provisions aimed at protecting election administrators and gives voters the opportunity to sue in federal court if they believe their vote or the right of that vote to be fairly counted has been infringed upon.

Republicans have consistently said they will not support federal voting legislation.

Schumer this week encouraged Democrats to support a Senate rule change within the next few weeks to stop the GOP from filibustering voting legislation. Biden has said he supports making an exception to the filibuster rules in order to pass voting rights legislation, but the White House has not said publicly whether the president would back whatever change Senate Democrats might propose.

In conversations between Schumer’s office and White House officials, none of Biden’s aides have raised concerns about the majority leader’s strategy, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Schumer aides briefed White House officials on the strategy late last month before the holiday break, again last week and early this week, this person said, adding that “they were supportive.”

Some of Biden's aides have privately expressed skepticism about Democrats emphasizing Trump and voting rights so much, out of concern it could alienate swing voters who will be decisive in the November midterms and primarily care about economic issues.

A White House official said the president supports Schumer’s strategy, but privately some officials are concerned that Democrats still may not have the votes needed to pass the legislation, a person familiar with the discussions said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden would deliver a separate speech on voting rights on a different date. She added that the White House is “working in lockstep with Leader Schumer about getting voting rights done” even though it’s not a marquee part of his speech on Thursday. She described the issue as “a huge priority to the president.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is engaged in negotiations to change Senate rules that would enable passage of voting rights legislation, said Jan. 6 and voting rights are “separate issues but [we] need to treat them both as important.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., another leader in the effort to create an exception to the rules for voting rights legislation, is supportive of Schumer's effort to link the push for federal legislation and the anniversary of the attack.

Still, he added: “We witnessed a violent assault on the Capitol that has been metastasized into voter suppression efforts all across the country, but we were dealing with voter suppression no doubt before Jan. 6.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that “it is beyond distasteful” for Democrats to use the Jan. 6 anniversary to try to advance voting rights legislation.

A spokesman for Schumer, Justin Goodman, told NBC News that “the disenfranchisement of any voter is an attack on our democracy and we will keep fighting those partisan efforts.”

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has voting rights as part of her policy portfolio, also plans to speak on Thursday, and will mention the necessity of securing voting rights and safeguarding elections, according to a White House official.

Biden’s speech at the Capitol is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. ET.

Psaki said Wednesday that Biden is “very personally involved” in drafting his remarks to ensure they are “meeting the moment.”

Trump, who on Tuesday canceled a planned Jan. 6 news conference, will loom large in Biden’s remarks.

Aides say the president sees Jan. 6 as an exception to his general rule of not wanting to talk publicly about his predecessor.

“President Biden will lay out the significance of what happened at the Capitol, and the singular responsibility President Trump has for the chaos and carnage that we saw,” Psaki said. “And, he will forcibly push back on the lies spread by the former president.”

In 2021, 19 states, most of them Republican-led, enacted 34 laws restricting voting rights in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, with more up for consideration in 2022. The Brennan Center tracks voting bills and advocates for federal election legislation.

Republicans have argued that the changes are necessary for “election integrity,” and strongly objected to pushback from Democrats and voting rights activists who have said many of the new provisions target voters of color.

They also argue that Democrats’ concerns about Republicans using state legislatures to try to overturn federal election results are unfounded, and that some of the changes they're pursuing, particularly those aimed at election processes at the state level, are unnecessary.

“The notion that some state legislature would be crazy enough to say to their own voters, we're not going to honor the results of the election is ridiculous on its face,” McConnell said this week.