Biden under pressure to chart voting rights path in Atlanta speech

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ATLANTA — President Joe Biden is scheduled to give a long-awaited speech Tuesday on the urgency of passing federal voting rights bills, as congressional Democrats increasingly prioritize ballot box protections and advocates grow frustrated over stalled legislation.

Biden will frame upcoming Senate votes on two major election bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — as “a turning point in this nation,” according to an excerpt of his remarks shared by the White House.

“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” the president will say. “I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”

Biden has been under pressure to more aggressively address voting rights after a wave of restrictive voting laws, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the results of the 2020 election, were passed last year by more than a dozen GOP-controlled state legislatures. His speech also comes amid anxiety from activists who are frustrated and demanding more leadership from the president.

Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia and one of the party’s most prominent advocates for voting rights, will not be in attendance due to a conflict, a spokesperson, Seth Bringman, confirmed Monday night.

As he was leaving the White House on Tuesday, Biden said he had spoken to Abrams over the phone earlier that morning and that they had gotten their scheduling mixed up. “We are all on the same page, everything is fine,” he told reporters.

Earlier Monday, Abrams tweeted a message welcoming the president and thanking him “for refusing to relent until the work is finished.”

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Some Georgia activist groups, including the Black Voters Matter Fund and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said they are skipping the event in an effort to highlight what they said is the need for action in the U.S. Senate, rather than speeches.

“Our members should be at the State Capitol fighting against Georgia Republican attacks on democracy, instead of attending a political event,” activists said in a joint statement.

Biden will deliver his remarks Tuesday at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities. He also will lay a wreath at the crypt of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before visiting the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King used to preach and where Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is now a pastor.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who was tasked with leading the administration’s efforts on voting rights, will accompany Biden in Atlanta.

The trip comes less than a week before a crucial deadline on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has given Republicans until Jan. 17 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — to drop their opposition to voting rights legislation, or face a vote on changing the legislative filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most bills.

Speaking from the Senate floor on Tuesday, Schumer said the chamber could hold a vote as soon as Wednesday on the voting bills, adding that if Republicans continue to block the legislation, he’ll “consider the necessary steps” to make the Senate “adapt and act.”

Biden, who for months after taking office expressed reluctance to altering the filibuster, told ABC News in an interview last month that he would support making an exception “if the only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster.”

A White House official said that in Tuesday’s speech Biden will argue that Senate rules have been twisted to allow attacks on the right to vote. The president, who spent decades as a senator before serving as vice president in the Obama administration, will argue for “changing the Senate rules to ensure it can work again and be restored and this basic right is defended,” the White House official said.

Still, some advocates argue that Biden’s rhetoric has not translated into a strategy to get voting rights legislation passed. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have said they oppose altering the filibuster; without their votes, Democrats would be unable to change Senate rules.

A coalition of influential Georgia voting rights groups issued a statement last week warning Biden not to visit the state unless he was prepared to offer a concrete plan to pass voting rights legislation.

“I’m looking for marching orders. I’m looking for a plan,” said Nsé Ufot, the chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project and its affiliate, New Georgia Project Action Fund, one of the organizations that issued the statement. “I want to know that our president is fighting for all Americans and fighting for their ability to participate in our election.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said “there needs to be action.”

“What we’re looking for is more outcome than we are looking for words,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for the work that happens after the speech.”

His remarks Tuesday will be Biden’s second major address on voting rights, following a July speech in Philadelphia.

“The president will forcefully advocate for protecting the most bedrock American right: the right to vote and have your voice counted in a free, fair and secure election that is not tainted by partisan manipulation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, previewing Biden’s speech.

Some activists have expressed frustration with Biden for not making voting rights more of a legislative priority earlier in his presidency, when he was focusing more on infrastructure and his Build Back Better agenda, which has yet to pass the Senate due to Manchin’s opposition.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said altering the filibuster would “attack the core identity of the Senate” and warned that Republicans could pass various conservative bills that have support from centrist Democrats with a majority vote.

Schumer offered to put the GOP bills McConnell wants to vote on to a majority threshold if McConnell agreed to drop the filibuster on the Freedom To Vote and John Lewis bills, but McConnell objected.

At least 19 states passed laws last year making it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Far more restrictive voting rights laws were enacted around the country in 2021 than in any year since the center began tracking voting legislation a decade ago.

In the spring, Georgia’s Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a law that limits the time voters have to request absentee ballots, institutes tougher ID requirements, significantly cuts down on the number of mail-in voting drop boxes, and bans offering food or water to voters waiting in line.

Biden won Georgia in the 2020 election by less than a percentage point, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to prevail in the state since 1992. Georgia also delivered control of the Senate to the Democrats with the election of Warnock and Jon Ossoff in January 2021.

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