President Biden on Tuesday called on the Senate to change its rules to allow the passage of voting rights legislation in his most pointed remarks yet on the issue.
Specifically, he demanded passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, two bills supported by every Democrat in Congress that have been held up due to the Senate filibuster, the 60-vote threshold required to advance most bills in the upper chamber.
Biden did not call for a specific strategy to bypass the filibuster, instead leaving the door open to whatever solution Senate Democrats deem necessary.
"Today I'm making it clear," he said. "To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights."
The speech marks a departure from Biden’s position on the filibuster to this point in his presidency. He previously expressed support for a carve-out in the filibuster for voting rights but declined to push for a change to avoid hurting his economic agenda.
“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for two months,” he said. I’m tired of being quiet.”
The president lamented the state of the upper chamber of Congress, where he represented his home state of Delaware for more than 30 years, saying it had fallen from its former glory
"Sadly, the United States Senate, designed to be the world's greatest deliberative body, has been rendered a shell of its former self," he said. "It gives me no satisfaction to say that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate."
"But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills. Debate them. Vote. Let the majority prevail," he added.
The president also relied on themes he used in his remarks last week marking one year since the January 6 attack at the Capitol.
He criticized former President Trump and his supporters, calling them a force that "attempted a coup, a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people."
The speech comes as several Republican-led state legislatures have proposed or enacted a wave of voting restrictions. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have passed laws restricting voting in 2021.
Biden traveled to Georgia to deliver his speech, where he praised the efforts of voting rights advocates in the state and condemned Georgia Republicans for their own new law that he said is designed to make voting more difficult.
"You did it the right way, the democratic way," he said, addressing local voting rights advocates. "And what's been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way. To them too many people voting in a democracy is a problem. So they're putting up obstacles."
Georgia enacted a number of voting restrictions: stricter ID requirements for voting by mail, limits on the number of drop boxes for absentee ballots, a shorter window for voters to request an absentee ballot, and a controversial provision making it illegal to give food or water to people waiting in line to vote.
The law also gives the legislature the power to suspend local election officials and appoint someone else to oversee the process. Critics say the provision opens the door for partisan oversight of elections, which is usually meant to be a non-partisan effort.
"That's not America," Biden said. "That's what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote."
But a key reality in the Senate overshadowed Biden's speech: He doesn't have the votes to change or eliminate the filibuster.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have made their opposition to reforming the filibuster well known over the past year. The two have doubled down over the past weeks when asked about their position.
"We need some good rule changes to make the place work better but getting rid of the filibuster doesn't make it work better," Manchin told CBS News on Capitol Hill.
Other moderate senators voiced their concerns about changing the filibuster on Monday, including Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), and Jon Tester (Mont.).
Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said he plans to move on voting rights legislation, and a Senate rules change, this week.
"The Senate is going to act as soon as tomorrow," he said in a floor speech Tuesday. "It is my intention to once again bring legislation to the floor to fight back against the threats to democracy and protect people's access to the ballot."
Biden's speech comes at a critical point at the start of his second year in office.
Democrats are poised to lose their majorities in the House and Senate in the midterm elections in November, even before action on their legislative agenda. They hope an aggressive push on voting rights will motivate their voters to turn out later this year, especially after negotiations on the Build Back Better bill fell through late last year, stalling key parts of Biden's economic agenda.
Every Republican in the Senate is expected to vote against even starting debate on the voting bills. Biden presented them with a stark choice ahead of the push to debate and vote.
"Do you want to be on the side of Dr.[Martin Luther] King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?" Biden said.
"This is the moment to decide."
Updated on January 11, 2022, at 5:45 p.m. with video and full write-up.