Texas House Democrats fled the state on Monday to block Republicans from passing a sweeping voter suppression bill and traveled to Washington, DC, to lobby their congressional counterparts to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights. “We are living on borrowed time in Texas,” Texas Democratic leaders said in a statement. “We need Congress to act now…to protect Texans—and all Americans—from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”
Now they want the White House to act with the same urgency.
In a speech on Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris called voting rights “the fight of our lifetime.” President Biden plans to deliver a major speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday denouncing GOP efforts to make it harder to vote, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday called “the worst challenge to our democracy since the Civil War.”
Yet voting rights advocates say the White House’s rhetoric about the existential threat to democracy has not been matched by action to solve the problem. Biden, they complain, has been much more engaged in trying to pass an infrastructure plan than in trying to persuade Senate Democrats to pass the For the People Act, the sweeping voting rights measure that was blocked by a GOP filibuster last month.
“We’d like for him to fight for voting rights as hard as they’ve been fighting for infrastructure,” says Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the progressive group Indivisible, which held more than 300 events during the July congressional recess to lobby for the For the People Act. “They’ve probably spent one-hundredth of the political capital on democracy as they’ve spent on infrastructure.” He added, “We’d ask that he treats crumbling democracy the same way he’s treating crumbling roads and bridges.”
Voting rights advocates and some leading Democrats specifically want Biden, in his speech in Philadelphia, to call for an end to the filibuster for voting rights legislation. This exemption from the 60-vote requirement would allow Democrats to approve the For the People Act through a simple majority vote—which is exactly how voter suppression legislation is passing in the GOP-controlled states. Voting advocates want Biden to press centrist Democratic senators, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to reform the filibuster with the same energy he’s been lobbying them to back his infrastructure plan.
Yet so far there’s no indication that the White House will comply. “The president’s view continues to be aligned with what he has said in the past,” Psaki said Monday, “which is that he has not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it has been used as often the other way around.”
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who was widely credited with delivering the 2020 Democratic nomination for Biden after endorsing him before the South Carolina primary, expressed support over the weekend for ending the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. Biden could “pick up the phone and tell Joe Manchin, ‘Hey, we should do a carve-out,’” Clyburn told Politico. “I don’t care whether he does it in a microphone or on the telephone—just do it.” If Biden fails to sign voting rights legislation, “Democrats can kiss the majority goodbye,” Clyburn warned.
Top Democrats have been rallying behind the idea of a carve-out for voting rights legislation for months. In the same way that Democrats can pass budget bills and confirm judges and Cabinet members with a simple majority, legislation protecting voting rights should also be exempt from the 60-vote requirement, Stacey Abrams told me in March.
“The judicial appointment exception, the Cabinet appointment exception, the budget reconciliation exception are all grounded in this idea that these are constitutionally prescribed responsibilities that should not be thwarted by minority imposition,” Abrams said. “And we should add to it the right to protect democracy. It is a foundational principle in our country. And it is an explicit role and responsibility accorded only to Congress in the elections clause in the Constitution.”
When asked how she’d persuade centrist Democrats like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have steadfastly supported the filibuster, to go along with a “democracy exception” to the filibuster, Abrams responded, “I would say to Democrats who are hesitant that short of completely revising the filibuster, we have to make certain that a minority of people cannot be in power in the Senate, and therefore deny the basic principles of citizenship to millions of Americans.”
In March, Biden said the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way” and said he supported a “talking filibuster,” whereby Senators actually have to hold the floor continuously to block pieces of legislation. He said he was “open” to further reform of the filibuster, including a voting rights exception to the filibuster, but he has not endorsed the Clyburn-Abrams position.
“Don’t just tell us you’re open to it,” says Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a voting rights group that recently retraced the 1961 Freedom Rides to draw attention to the attack on voting rights. “Give us a proposal, in the same way that you told us what it is that you want in the infrastructure plan. Tell it to Joe Manchin, tell it to Sinema, tell them exactly what you want in a filibuster reform proposal.”
When Republicans filibustered the For the People Act on June 22, Biden did not speak in favor of the bill before the vote, nor did he call for reforming the filibuster after it was blocked. During his speech to a joint session of Congress in April, Biden didn’t mention voting rights until the end of the speech, despite the fact that GOP-controlled states like Georgia had already passed sweeping voter suppression laws.
“If I was Mitch McConnell at that point, the message I would get is, oh, this president isn’t really serious about trying to get voting rights legislation passed,” said Albright. “He’s not willing to use his political capital on getting voting rights passed. And that has emboldened the Republicans. They have not seen an aggressive White House, not at the congressional level nor the state level.”
That could change with Biden’s speech on Tuesday. But there are limits to what Biden can do through executive action or what he can accomplish through lobbying and public speaking. Voting rights may simply be a much heavier lift than infrastructure, where at least some Republicans are willing to negotiate. As for the portions of Biden’s infrastructure plan that Republicans won’t back, Democrats can pass them through the reconciliation process with 51 votes, without a fight over changing Senate rules.
Historically, presidents have been pressured into supporting voting rights legislation rather than leading the way.
In December 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. met with Lyndon Johnson at the White House shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He asked him to push for a Voting Rights Act to counter the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the Jim Crow South.
“Martin, you are right about that,” Johnson replied. “I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get voting rights through in this session of Congress.”
So King went to Selma, Alabama, to lead a months-long campaign for voting rights. The brutal beating of civil rights marchers by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, left Johnson no choice but to act. He introduced the Voting Rights Act eight days later, before a joint session of Congress.
“Biden needs to have his LBJ moment,” Albright says.
There has no moment quite as dramatic as Bloody Sunday in Selma over the last year, but there has been an unprecedented attempt to overturn an election, followed by an insurrection at the Capitol, followed by nearly 400 bills introduced in 2021 to restrict voting rights, followed by the Supreme Court chipping away at what’s left of the Voting Rights Act, followed by Texas Democrats fleeing their state in protest.
“We’ve had some pretty dramatic moments in the fight for voting rights,” says Albright. “How much more does the White House need to see to understand this is a historic moment?”