Following passage of an omnibus voting rights bill in the House of Representatives, President Joe Biden will rally Democratic Senators as they mull changes to Senate rules to prevent Republican obstruction of what Democrats have argued is a critical antidote against antidemocratic attacks on elections.
The president has ramped up his defence of voting rights in recent days, following remarks marking the anniversary of the attacks on the US Capitol and a furious address condemning a Republican-backed wave of state-level legislation to restrict ballot access and change the rules of election administration.
Congressional Republicans lambasted his remarks and his support for changes to Senate filibuster rules on which they have repeatedly relied to block federal voting rights legislation.
In his remarks from Atlanta on Tuesday, the president pointed to a grave juncture for passing federal voting rights protections by comparing the debate between its advocates and opponents to civil rights leaders and segregationists.
“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Mr Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of [Dr Martin Luther King Jr] 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?”
In a floor speech on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the president’s speech “irresponsible, delegitimizing rhetoric to undermine our democracy” and a “rant” that was “incoherent, incorrect, and beneath his office.”
Defending the president’s remarks, Democratic Senator Dick Durbintold CNN that the president’s language is “stark, and I will concede that point, but don’t overlook the reality that in 20 different states, governed and led by Republicans in legislature and the governorship in each and every one of them, taking step by weary step to ensure fewer Americans vote.”
“Who in the world sets out a political agenda reducing the vote in America?” he said. “Exactly the opposite should be our goal by both political parties, and yes, that was the goal of the segregationists, was to reduce the opportunity for African Americans to vote, well documented, over spans of decade after decade, so yes, there are parallels there.”
He added: “Perhaps the president went a little too far in his rhetoric, some of us do, but the fundamental principles and values at stake are very similar.”
His concession that the president “went a little too far” frustrated voting rights advocates, the latest in growing criticism against Democratic lawmakers accused of failing to match their rhetoric to the urgency of an antidemocratic crisis.
Meanwhile, conservatives and Republican officials have pointed to his statement to legitimise their attacks against Mr Biden.
In an interview with NBC News, Vice President Kamala Harris – appointed to lead White House efforts on voting rights – said the president took the “courageous step to say that Senate rules should not get in the way of protecting the American people’s access to the ballot.”
“And he compared this time to a previous time in our history, which is apt for comparison,” she added.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged to move forward on voting rights by Martin Luther King Jr Day on 17 January.
The vice president said she will “not absolve the 50 Republicans in the United States Senate from responsibility for upholding one of the most basic and important tenets of our democracy, which is free and fair elections and access to the ballot for all eligible voters.”
Asked whether two Democratic opponents of filibuster reform, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyersten Sinema, are absolved from that responsibility, Ms Harris said: “I don’t think anyone should be absolved from the responsibility of preserving and protecting our democracy – especially when they took an oath to protect and defend our Constitution.”
After holding more than a dozen hearings and passing several bills on voting rights in recent years, House Democrats are urging their Senate counterparts to take up their legislation after routine Republican stonewalls.
“The House has made clear we stand with the people in the fight for voting rights,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday. She said lawmakers are sending the latest bill to the Senate for “urgent consideration”.
“Nothing less is at stake than our democracy,” she said.
Democratic US Rep Terri Sewell said she is imploring the Senate “to do what is right.”
“You have changed your rules 150 times, most recently to raise the debt ceiling,” she said. “If you can protect the credit of the United States, surely you can protect democracy.”