ATLANTA — President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for an end to the filibuster to allow for passage of federal voting rights bills, as congressional Democrats increasingly prioritize ballot box protections and advocates grow frustrated over stalled legislation.
In a long-awaited speech on voting rights, the president tried to frame the issue as one that has historically received bipartisan support, accusing Senate Republicans of lacking the "courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect the right to vote." Their obstruction, he said, left Democrats with "no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this."
"Pass it now," Biden said, referring to the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. "I am tired of being quiet."
Biden has been under pressure to more aggressively address voting rights after a wave of restrictive voting laws, fueled by former President Donald Trump's false claims about the results of the 2020 election, were passed last year by more than a dozen GOP-controlled state legislatures. His speech also comes amid anxiety from activists who are frustrated and demanding more leadership from the president.
Biden, who frequently describes himself as an institutionalist, had resisted for months calls to back the changing of the filibuster. But he said Tuesday that "the United States Senate, designed to be the world's greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self."
Even with the president’s new position on the filibuster, it is unclear how voting rights legislation would pass Congress. Republicans have remained unified in their opposition to the two voting rights bills currently being considered and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have said they oppose altering the filibuster. Without their votes, Democrats would be unable to change Senate rules to get around the 60-vote threshold.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Tuesday that the Senate would vote on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act by Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. When they fail, Democrats will consider changing Senate rules, Schumer said.
Biden delivered his remarks Tuesday at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities. He also visited the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before going to the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King used to preach and where Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is now a pastor.
Biden framed the moment as an inflection point in American democracy and urged senators of both parties to consider the role they played in protecting the right to vote.
"Will you stand for democracy, yes or no?," said Biden. "Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? This is the moment to decide."
Some voting rights advocates had expressed frustration with the president ahead of his visit for not prioritizing legislation on the issue earlier on in his administration, arguing that Biden's rhetoric on the issue has not translated into a strategy to get legislation passed.
"While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it’s time for this administration to match their words with actions, and for Congress to do their job," NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement after the speech. "Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be THE priority."
Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor and one of the party’s most prominent advocates for voting rights, did not attend Tuesday’s speech. Some influential activist groups, including the Black Voters Matter Fund and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, also skipped the event in an effort to highlight what they said is the need for action in the U.S. Senate, rather than speeches.
In an interview with MSNBC Tuesday morning, Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, said it had been a “difficult decision” to attend Biden’s speech.
“We certainly understand the frustration of our local partners here in Georgia,” Waters King said. “It’s been a long year of a lot of things not being done, and we stand and we share that frustration.”
Biden’s speech in Atlanta was only the second time since taking office that he has held an event solely dedicated to voting rights, following a speech on the issue in Philadelphia in July. In comparison, he has held more than 60 events solely dedicated to the pandemic and 40 events focused on his infrastructure and Build Back Better agenda.
“Giving dozens of speeches for Build Back Better didn't get us Build Back Better,” said Nsé Ufot, the chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project and its affiliate, New Georgia Project Action Fund. “So if they are telling me that this speech is going to get us voting rights, I don't think it's crazy or unreasonable for me to ask simply: how?”
"I'm looking for marching orders. I'm looking for a plan," she added.
At least 19 states passed laws last year making it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Far more restrictive voting rights laws were enacted around the country in 2021 than in any year since the center began tracking voting legislation a decade ago.
In the spring, Georgia’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law that limits the time voters have to request absentee ballots, institutes tougher ID requirements, significantly cuts down on the number of mail-in voting drop boxes, and bans offering food or water to voters waiting in line.
Biden won Georgia in the 2020 election by less than a percentage point, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to prevail in the state since 1992. Georgia also delivered Democrats control of the Senate with the election of Warnock and Jon Ossoff in January 2021.