Appearing in Atlanta alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden finally called for an end to the filibuster to pass needed voting rights and democracy reform legislation. Both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act stalled in the Senate awaiting action. Until now, Republican obstruction has prevented even a conversation of the two bills.
In his opening remarks Tuesday, the president conceded that prior ways of responding to Democracy no longer work.
“In the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before and everything that followed,” Biden began. “They stopped time; they rip away the trivial from the essential. And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions and about our Democracy.”
Likely building on Harris’ work during listening sessions with voting rights groups last year, the Atlanta speech reflects a clear turning point. Taking office two weeks after an attempted coup, Biden prioritized the bipartisanship of his time in the Senate.
Biden’s rejection of the old way may be as much a testament to Harris’ partnership in his administration as it is the pressure from groups committed to Democracy.
“Dr. King decried what he called normalcy,” Harris said in her remarks Tuesday. “The normalcy, the complacency that was denying people the freedom to vote. The only normalcy anyone should accept, Dr. King said, is the normalcy of justice.”
And she’s right. Democracy advocates, voting rights organizers and civic engagement groups have warned about the dire need for action since the insurrection last year. The filibuster remained an obstacle, with the president unwilling to move beyond his understanding of normal.
“For the past year, we have urged the Biden administration to join us as a vocal partner in this fight by using its bully pulpit more aggressively and doing whatever is in their power to secure passage of this critical legislation,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This announcement honors the requests from the Lawyers’ Committee and allied civil rights organizations, who have demanded that the filibuster not stand in the way of progress.”
While centered in the history of the civil rights movement, the message today was for white moderates in the Senate and around the country still straddling the fence. According to Politico, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly was unsure of where he stood on the rule change, possibly joining the ranks of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in watching voting rights die.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” King wrote.
Regardless of their party affiliation, Biden has thrown down the gauntlet for white moderates naming famed racists Bull Connor and George Wallace in his speech. The message is clear, “what side are you on?”
During his remarks, Biden echoed sentiments from nonpartisan organizations across the country that the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are not about party affiliation but the institution of Democracy itself and who is entitled to access it.
Despite his existing support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Biden previously prioritized his vision of institutionalism and protecting an antiquated Senate rule often used to obstruct equity and justice. But his speech Tuesday makes clear that he understands things are different from his days in the Senate.
“President Biden was clear in his call for eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights, and we’re grateful he has taken this bold step to support the change that we need,” Drum Major Institute Chairman Martin Luther King III said in a statement. “But he can’t rest this call at the feet of the Senate and walk away — he must use the full power of his office to ensure this Jim Crow relic finally falls. The president cited his pedigree of dealmaking to pass voting rights legislation as a senator — we know he has the power and influence to do the same today.”
Moving from supporting a “talking filibuster” last year to outright rule change is a big step in the right direction. Hopefully, one that has not come too late.
Biden’s challenge Tuesday wasn’t just to Senate holdouts, but for those who are waiting for some return to civility that has never existed for Black and other communities of color. Invoking the symbolism of the Civil Rights movement and the work and legacy of the late Dr. King, maybe Biden’s speech today will be the kickstart necessary to move things forward.
Now it is up to the Senate to take Biden’s call to action and put it into effect. The clock has almost run out of time as people wait for a “better way” to do what is necessary.
“Changing the Senate’s filibuster rules in order to pass national voting rights protections is long overdue,” Fair Elections Center Vice President Rebekah Caruthers said. “In 2021, we witnessed an onslaught of attacks on voting rights in our country, despite an overwhelming majority of Americans across party lines supporting national voting rights protections and reform. As President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made clear in Georgia, the only way to ensure a fair and free American democracy is to eliminate the filibuster and pass both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”