It is not often that the President of the United States of America pounds his hand for emphasis. But he did so on Tuesday when he challenged Senators to “stand against voter suppression” by changing Senate rules to pass legislation on voter rights that Republicans have been blocking from debate and votes. President Biden told a crowd in Atlanta gathered on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University that he’d been having quiet conversations with senators for months over the two bills without success, a lack of progress that has brought him criticism from activists in his own party. He was cheered by the crowd as he exclaimed in exasperation ~ “I’m tired of being quiet”.
In his remarks, Biden invoked the civil rights battles of the 1960s. He compared the wrongs of the past to modern-day efforts to subvert elections through the Capitol riot a year ago and a series of Republican-backed laws passed after former President Trump lost in 2020 and then falsely claimed widespread voter fraud. Biden chastised Republicans for falling in line behind Trump’s election lies. “Today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge,” Mr. Biden said, “pass the freedom to vote act.” His presentation was forceful, blunt, and explicit, referring to new efforts to limit voting access as “Jim Crow 2.0.”
For the first time, he directly advocated eliminating the Senate’s vote-blocking device called the filibuster in order to debate and vote on election and voting rights legislation. Though his focus imparts greater national attention to the debate ahead, it is not clear what impact his newfound fire will have. Current rules require 60 votes to advance most legislation, indeed a threshold that Senate Democrats cannot meet alone because they have just a 50-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties.
Republicans unanimously oppose the voting rights measures. There also aren’t enough Democratic votes to change the Senate rule. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin threw cold water on the idea on Tuesday, saying he believes any changes should only be made with substantial Republican support. And there aren’t any Republican senators willing to sign on. President Biden called for a change to the filibuster rule after activists pushed him to do so, even as some members of his party are said to be hesitant about altering the rules.
The opposition from the Republicans has been strident. Reacting to the President’s speech, senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said he did not “recognise the man at the podium.” Describing the speech as incoherent and “profoundly unpresidential”, in itself very strong criticism, Mr McConnell accused the President of ranting, suggesting that the battle lines drawn so clearly are unlikely to be redrawn.