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President Biden plans to renew his push for action in Congress to protect voting rights in a speech in Georgia on Tuesday, where proposed federal legislation for the Democratic Party has stalled and the president faces mounting pressure to intervene.
Biden is expected to throw his support behind the blocking change to make it easier for voting rights bills to pass, and to ensure they “can be restored and defend that fundamental right,” according to a White House official who provided a preview of Biden’s remarks on the condition of anonymity.
“The next few days, when these bills are voted on, will be a turning point in this nation,” Biden said, according to prepared statements shared by the White House. “Do we choose democracy over tyranny, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know my place.”
But some activists, frustrated with the lack of action on the issue, plan to skip the statements, arguing that Biden’s time would be better spent brokering a plan to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate than to deliver another speech.
Biden will be joined by Vice President Harris, who has been the administration’s key person on voting rights, to deliver a speech at the University of Atlanta Center. The speech will be delivered in the district formerly represented by the late civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, in a state that has been a focal point in the struggle over voting rights.
“He’s not going to Georgia tomorrow – a place where there is a tremendous history of civil rights leaders, and his friend John Lewis – defending voting rights, if he’s not willing and willing to make this case and continue to do so,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.
Biden has been pressured to combat threats to voting rights more vigorously, which has been one of the key promises of his presidency. In a speech in July, he called the fight against restrictive Republican-led voting laws in states including Georgia “the most important test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
“I think we all want to see the White House do everything it can. Drag every point, hit every lever to get that done,” said Reverend Leah Dattrey, a veteran Democratic strategist, who will be attending the address in Atlanta. “Because without all of us being able to count our votes and honor our votes, there will be nothing else in our democracy. And what we saw on January 6, 2021 is just the tip of the iceberg.”
In the Senate, Democrats pushed forward two voting rights bills that were blocked by Republicans using stalling: the Freedom of Voting Act that would set new minimum standards for early voting and mail, among other provisions. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to restore key elements of the historic Voting Rights Act that have been weakened by Supreme Court rulings.
Senators will vote to stall within days
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York State said the Senate will vote no later than January 17 on changing Senate rules if Republicans continue to block voting rights legislation.
“We hope that our fellow Republicans will change course and work with us,” Schumer said in a letter to his campaign rally. “But if they don’t, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundations of our democracy: free and fair elections.”
But in order to change the Senate’s rules, all Democrats must be at the top of the list. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kirsten Senema of Arizona have repeatedly defended legislative stalling and may not be open to amending it, despite support for the voting legislation itself.
“As she has done throughout her tenure in the US House and Senate, Senator Senema also continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from frequent radical setbacks in federal policy that would entrench uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans,” Hannah said. Hurley, a spokeswoman for Cinemas, said in a statement: “It’s confidence in our government.”
Biden and Democrats have faced increasing pressure from advocates for voting bills to either change Senate rules to eliminate obstruction, or to obtain an exemption for some bills, including measures focused on voting rights.
Psaki declined to say whether Biden had been involved in talks with senators in recent weeks about voting rights legislation or potential rule changes.
“Don’t stop in Georgia”
While Republicans viewed the Democrats’ goals as a planned federal election takeover, Democrats, including Biden and Harris, were under increasing pressure to address the issue of voting rights more forcefully.
Derek Johnson, president of the NAACP, said some policymakers have approached the issue “in a very lackluster way.”
“What we witnessed on January 6th was an attack on our democracy. But what we saw after January 6th, with legislatures across the country passing legislation for voter suppression, was also an attack on our democracy,” Johnson said, attending Biden’s speech in Atlanta on Tuesday. “We are not asking for anything extraordinary. The constitution guarantees the right to vote and we must ensure that this right is protected.”
Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Alliance for Black Civic Engagement, said she hopes Biden and Harris will deliver similar speeches in other states where laws to restrict voting have been passed.
“Don’t stop in Georgia. Go to Arizona. Go to these places where these laws have been passed in 19 states… for people to really see what’s going on. They have the power of a bully pulpit to help elevate these laws,” she said in an interview.
But Campbell, who also planned to attend Biden’s remarks on Tuesday, said speeches are not a substitute for legislative action.
Some defenders will not attend
Prior to the visit of the president and vice president, some voting rights groups in Georgia expressed opposition to Biden’s planned approach.
A number of organizations — including Black Voters Matter, Asian American Advocacy Fund, and New Georgia Project Action Fund — have called on Biden and Harris to cancel their trip if they don’t plan to announce “a final plan for voting rights that will be approved by both houses.” Procrastination doesn’t stop him, he gets signed off to become law.
Leaders of those groups said Monday that they would not attend Biden’s speech.
Latosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said she and other activists did not go beyond the statements to be “hostile” or “combatant,” but said she wanted to convey the urgency of the moment.
“We’ve been screaming and screaming and talking about this for over a year,” Brown said.
“Please stay in Washington tomorrow because we don’t need you here in Georgia. We’ve got it here in Georgia, and we always do,” said Faye Nguyen, executive director of Asian American Adventure Justice – Atlanta. Monday.
The address will be attended by family members of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., including King’s oldest surviving son, Martin Luther King III. King and his wife, Arendrea Waters King, will meet with President Biden in Atlanta.
King said in a statement that he supports Georgia activists who refused to attend Biden’s speech, noting that they are “frustrated after a year of inaction, and so are we.”
King said he plans to meet with Biden “to say that his visit can’t be a mere formality.”
“We’ve seen what is possible when President Biden uses the full weight of his office to provide bridges, and now we need to see him do the same for voting rights,” King said.
NPR’s Deirdre Walsh contributed reporting.