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President Joe Biden warned of a Republican “assault on democracy” on Tuesday. And civil rights groups wondered why he wasn’t doing more to combat it.
During a speech in Philadelphia, Biden delivered a dire warning about the wave of Republican-backed legislation that’s making it harder to vote in state after state.
“There’s an unfolding assault taking place in American today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote and free and fair elections. An assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are, who we are as Americans,” he said. “The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. And we’re going to challenge it vigorously.”
One word was missing that civil rights groups wanted to hear, however: “filibuster.”
Without reforming the Senate rule that requires 60 votes for almost any legislation to become law, all national Democratic efforts to protect voting rights are doomed. And that means the state-level attacks on voting will continue unabated.
The speech comes just one day after Texas Democratic lawmakers fled the state to D.C. to delay Republicans’ efforts to pass a restrictive voting law—and plead with Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, sprawling bills that would set national standards for voting and undo some of the damage the Supreme Court has recently done to the original Voting Rights Act.
But the first bill has already been blocked because of the filibuster and the second is on its way. And even if Biden flipped, Democrats would still be short the votes needed to pass the major bills unless a handful of Democrats in tough states came along with him.
“We've got to hold their feet to the fire,” Texas Democratic state Rep. Jasmine Crockett told VICE News about her own party’s officials, shortly after she arrived in Washington on Monday. “If the Republicans can push us and push us and push us in Texas because they have the House, the Senate, and the governor's mansion, I would like to see something like that in D.C. Because the Republicans are doing it for bad, we're trying to do it for good. We're not asking for anything more than what we’re entitled to under the Constitution. And the Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the White House.”
In his speech, Biden also warned that some of the recent GOP legislation went beyond voting suppression. New laws in states like Georgia give state officials the power to meddle in county-level election administration, and in some cases overturn local results. The reason Texas Democrats fled the state is because Republicans are pushing a law that would limit counties’ ability to expand voting by banning 24-hour and drive-thru voting and block them from sending out absentee ballot request forms to voters.
“This is election subversion. It’s the most dangerous threat to voting and the integrity of free and fair elections in our history,” Biden warned.
Biden then highlighted that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was on a hiring spree, and called for activists to organize hard to overcome GOP voting suppression efforts in the 2022 midterms. The DOJ is also suing to try to block Georgia’s new law, and is likely to launch suits against other laws as well. But those lawsuits face steep odds in the conservative courts.
Still, civil rights and left-wing activists have grown increasingly frustrated that Biden hasn’t changed his mind and pressed to eliminate the filibuster. And they panned the speech as empty rhetoric in the face of an existential threat.
The left-wing group Indivisible protested outside his speech, demanding that Biden come out strongly against the Senate filibuster. And the group’s co-founder wasn’t impressed when Biden put the onus on activists to out-organize suppressive voting laws:
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights warned after his speech that Biden “must do even more and use the full weight of his office to protect the freedom to vote and stop the onslaught of un-American, anti-voter scams being pushed across the country.”
And one Latino voting group had a simple message:
But there’s only so much Biden can do, even if he changed his mind on the filibuster. He’s not a senator anymore, and a number of Democratic senators—most prominently West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema—have loudly proclaimed that they wouldn’t support an end to the filibuster under any circumstances.
And Biden acknowledged the next big stumbling block: the Supreme Court.
The court, with its 6-3 conservative split and a trio of Trump appointees on the bench, recently delivered a body blow to the Voting Rights Act, the country’s most important voting rights legislation.
“Just weeks ago the Supreme Court yet again weakened the Voting Rights Act,” Biden said.
He insisted that the court’s decision doesn’t block Congress from limiting “the damage done,” but that’s not entirely true—even if Congress passes the two bills civil rights groups are clamoring for, there’s a good chance the Supreme Court will strike down major portions of the laws.
Civil rights activists know all of this. They know they’re facing a steep uphill battle as Republicans methodically chip away at voting rights across the country. But they’re furious that Biden won’t do more to try to help them with the climb.