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Home / Politics / News /  Biden to cast election-law votes as ‘turning point’ for nation in speech

President Biden plans to throw his weight behind congressional Democrats’ push to pass long-stalled elections bills, even if it requires changing Senate rules, in a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday designed to build support for the imperiled legislation with votes just days away.

While House and Senate Democrats support the proposals, the bills need 60 votes to advance in the 50-50 Senate. Both are expected to fall well short of that mark due to opposition from GOP lawmakers, prompting a parallel effort by Democrats to change the filibuster procedure to ease their passage. But two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have resisted such an approach, leaving any progress uncertain.

In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Biden will argue Democrats’ case that new federal laws are needed to counter recent state measures, which party lawmakers paint as a threat to access to the polls, particularly for minority voters. Republicans characterize the proposals as federal overreach and say Democrats are giving a distorted picture of states’ attempts to bolster election integrity.

Mr. Biden will say that the votes “will mark a turning point in this nation," according to excerpts released by the White House. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand," Mr. Biden’s speech reads. “And so the question is where will the institution of [the] United States Senate stand?"

A White House official said Mr. Biden will discuss his support for changing Senate rules if needed to pass elections-related legislation. In previewing the remarks, the official said Mr. Biden would call on Republicans to back the bills. The aide made no specific mention of pressuring the holdout Democrats on the filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has set a Jan. 17 deadline for the Senate to take action on the election legislation before turning to possible Senate rules changes. He has acknowledged the gambit faces an uphill battle.

One bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, mandate 15 days of early voting and require all states to allow mail-in voting, among other changes. The other, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), would give the federal government more control over state voting procedures, after Supreme Court rulings weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gave Washington control over changes to rules in states with a history of racial discrimination.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Monday that Democrats are using the elections bills as a pretext for weakening the filibuster, which has also held up other Democratic legislation.

“Leading Democrats say they want to break the Senate because of a sinister anti-voting plot that is sweeping America, of course, this is totally fake. It does not exist," he said. Federal rules would overrule the “common-sense voting laws that citizens across the country have picked for their own states," he added.

The president’s address comes less than a week after he gave a forceful speech on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in which he blamed former President Donald Trump for creating a “web of lies" with his false claims of election fraud. He and other Democrats have tried to draw a direct line between the claims of fraud, the Jan. 6 riot and the need for new federal elections laws.

“I think he needs to let the American people know that the filibuster has its place as it relates to policy but it does not have any place when it comes to constitutional issues," said Rep. James Clyburn (D., S.C.), the No. 3 House Democrat and a top Biden ally. Mr. Clyburn started urging a carve-out for voting-rights legislation last summer.

Republicans, who have repeatedly blocked elections-related legislation, said Democrats were overplaying their hand.

Changing the filibuster “is no different than what they’re trying to do with elections—this is all about acquiring power, maintaining power, and—if they can’t get it fairly—changing the rules in the middle of the game," tweeted Sen. Bill Hagerty (R., Tenn.).

Georgia is among a group of states where GOP lawmakers have pushed more-restrictive voting laws following the 2020 election, citing in part the need for tighter election security. The laws include limits on mail ballots and drop boxes, following a rise in voting by mail during the pandemic. In Georgia, Texas and Florida, Republican lawmakers added new ID requirements to vote by mail, among other changes.

The new law in Georgia enables the State Election Board to, under certain conditions, remove and replace local election superintendents. Republicans say this would require clear wrongdoing or incompetence in a county. Opponents worry that such changes could make it easier for partisan officials to intervene.

Activists and Democratic leaders said they were encouraged by the tone and urgency Mr. Biden showed in his Jan. 6 speech, but some want the president to adopt a more combative style ahead of the midterm elections.

“His speech gives an indication that maybe he’s getting it, but I don’t think up until now that he or his White House team has fully recognized the threat to democracy," said Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter, an advocacy group that signed onto a letter saying Mr. Biden shouldn’t arrive in Georgia without a specific plan to enact voting legislation.

Some of those groups later said they would boycott the Biden event.

Citing past Democratic leaders, Mr. Albright said: “Lyndon Johnson would get it done. Harry Reid as Senate majority leader would get it done."

Stacey Abrams, a voting-rights activist and former Georgia Democratic minority leader now running for governor, has a conflict and won’t attend the speech, a spokesman said. She tweeted thanks to Mr. Biden for “refusing to relent until the work is finished."

Republicans and other defenders of the filibuster say the rule encourages bipartisan cooperation and limits policy swings from one Congress to the next, when power changes hands.

Mr. Biden, who served in the Senate for decades, has been reluctant to call for changes to the filibuster, frustrating progressives. But late last year, he said he was open to creating an exception to the 60-vote threshold for voting-rights bills. To change Senate rules, Democrats would need the support of 50 Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking any ties.

Other floated changes include putting more of the responsibility to block a bill on the minority party, by requiring 41 senators to be present and voting no, rather than 60 senators present and voting yes. Democrats are also considering eliminating the filibuster threshold for a motion to proceed to a bill, allowing debate and amendments, but leaving the second filibuster threshold in place.

To get to 50 votes, party leaders would need to get both Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema on board. Mr. Manchin says any changes should have Republican buy-in, an unlikely prospect. Ms. Sinema has said she would oppose any change to the 60-vote threshold.

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