Biden says he supports changing filibuster rule to pass voting rights bills

If bills are blocked there is "no option" but to change the Senate rule: Biden

January 11, 2022, 6:15 PM

With less than 10 months until the 2022 midterm elections, President Joe Biden on Tuesday backed a historic change to Senate rules to allow a pair of national voting rights bills to pass, saying he supported "getting rid of" the filibuster if necessary.

"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," the president said, speaking in Atlanta. "And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster for this."

At the state level, Biden noted, only a simple majority has been required for Republicans across the country to pass restrictive voting legislation -- compared to 60% of the Senate, or 60 votes.

"State legislators can pass anti-voting laws in simple majorities," he said. "If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to check voting rights by a simple majority.

"Today," he continued, "I'm making it clear 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."

But to eliminate or grant an exception to the filibuster rule -- which requires 60 votes for a bill to advance -- would require at least half of the evenly split Senate to support doing so.

And moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, oppose such a change.

Without explicitly invoking their names, Biden said "every senator, Democrat, Republican and independent, will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages,"

"The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation's history," the president said.

That stark declaration did not appear to move Sinema, though.

Her spokesperson said in a statement after the speech that the senator "continues to support the Senate's 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans' confidence in our government."

Over the past few months, Biden has expressed openness to an exception to the filibuster, or altering the rule, to allow the voting rights legislation to pass.

But he has expended much of his time and political capital on other issues -- the coronavirus pandemic, infrastructure and his "Build Back Better" social proposals.

With his Tuesday speech -- coupled with his remarks attacking former President Donald Trump last week -- he brought the issue to the forefront.

He called out congressional Republicans, he said, for turning the will of the voters into a "mere suggestion" in the case of the 2020 presidential election and not having the courage to stand up for voting rights as Republicans have in the past.

"Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America's right to vote, not one," Biden said. "Not one."

The president's remarks came a week after he delivered a searing condemnation of former President Donald Trump's false claims that he, not Biden, won the 2020 allegation

Recalling the "violent mob" that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Biden on Tuesday characterized the attack, for the first time publicly, as an "attempted coup."

"That's why we're here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup -- a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people by sowing doubt and vending charges of fraud, seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people," he said.

President Joe Biden speaks in support of changing the Senate filibuster rules that have stalled voting rights legislation, at Atlanta University Center Consortium, on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, Jan. 11, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP

"Hear me plainly," Biden told the group gathered in Atlanta. "The battle for the soul of America is not over."

"We must make sure Jan. 6 marks not the end of democracy but the renaissance for our democracy," he continued.

Biden spoke Tuesday alongside Vice President Kamala Harris from the grounds of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.

"We will fight to secure our most fundamental freedom -- the freedom to vote," Harris said, opening for the president. "And that is why we have come to Atlanta today -- to the cradle of the civil rights movement, to the district that was represented by the great Congressman John Lewis, on the eve of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden arrive to speak in support of changing the Senate filibuster rules that have stalled voting rights legislation, Atlanta, Jan. 11, 2022.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Georgia is one of 19 states that have passed new restrictive voting laws since the 2020 election. There have been 34 such new laws in total across the country, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, and most of them in states controlled by Republicans.

Many of the new laws, fueled by false claims of widespread election fraud by the former president, take aim at mail-in voting, implement stricter voter ID requirements, allow fewer early voting days and limit ballot drop boxes.

Tuesday's trip was met with criticism from some voting groups that warned in a statement to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal that "anything less" than a finalized plan to pass voting rights in the House and Senate is insufficient and unwelcome."

Stacey Abrams speaks to Biden supporters as they wait for former President Barack Obama to arrive and speak at a campaign rally for Biden at Turner Field in Atlanta, Nov. 2, 2020.
Brynn Anderson/AP, FILE

On Monday afternoon, The Asian American Advocacy Fund, Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, Black Voters Matter Fund, GALEO Impact Fund and New Georgia Project Action Fund all said they wouldn't be attending the event and asked Biden and Harris to stay in Washington.

"We don't need another speech," said Cliff Albright, executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund. "What we need is action – what we need is a plan."

Biden's Tuesday speech was the third he has delivered focused on the issue of voting rights. It came after the president signaled in an interview with ABC "World News Tonight" anchor David Muir said that he would be open to making a one-time Senate rule change to the filibuster that would allow a simple majority to pass new voting laws.

Notably, also not in attendance for Biden's speech was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia voting rights activist and candidate for governor.

Biden said he spoke with her Tuesday morning and blamed it on a scheduling issue.

"I spoke with Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship. We got our scheduling mixed up. I talked to her at length this morning. We're all on the same page and everything is fine."

Fulton County voters stand in line to participate in early voting in the state's runoff election at Chastain Park Gymnasium in Atlanta's Chastain Park neighborhood, Dec. 16, 2020.
Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, FILE

In her briefing Monday, White House press secreatary Jen Psaki pushed back on criticism of the president, stressing that the speech Tuesday would be focused on moving forward.

"We understand the frustration by many advocates that this is not passed into law yet. He would love to have signed this into law himself. But tomorrow's an opportunity to speak about what the path forward looks like to advocate for – for this moving forward in the Senate."

Girl Scouts from Troops 20777 and 18120 hold signs urging residents to vote in the runoff election for both of Georgia's Senate seats in Atlanta, Jan. 3, 2021.
Brian Snyder/Reuters, FILE

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised a vote on voting rights legislation soon and warned that if Republicans filibuster the effort, he will force another vote by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The White House has insisted Biden will "work in lockstep" with Schumer to move a vote forward but are taking it "day by day."

Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the proposed federal voting laws, characterizing them as government overreach. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Democrats are promoting a "fake narrative," "fake outrage" and "fake hysteria" on voting rights "ginned up by partisans."

ABC News' Meg Cunningham contributed to this report.

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