Five hours before President Joe Biden was set to speak on the existential threat to American voting rights, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) made the stakes of Biden’s address crystal clear.
“If he is serious about saving our ailing democracy, he will voice his support for, at the very least, reforming the filibuster to pass the For the People Act on a simple majority vote in the Senate,” Jones said in a statement, referring to Democrats’ bill to expand voter access and reform elections. “Anything less at this point,” Jones said, “is an insult to the voters, organizers, and activists who understand the dire stakes of this moment and are counting on him to act.”
Consider the voters, organizers and activists insulted.
Biden on Tuesday did not downplay the danger that nationwide efforts by Republicans to limit access to the ballot box pose, calling attempts to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair elections “an unfolding assault taking place in America today.” But beyond a featureless, albeit impassioned, call for the Senate to pass voting-rights legislation currently stuck in a procedural quagmire, Biden’s address largely amounted to a pep rally for the right to vote.
“We have the means,” Biden said, apparently unironically. “We just need the will.”
Biden’s address at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, a venue chosen to emphasize the fundamental role that free and fair elections play in American government, comes as Republicans across the country move to pass legislation restricting access to the ballot box.
While Biden geared up to speak, 140 miles away, the scene outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning seemed to exactly represent that two-pronged problem for Democrats. A group of Texas Democratic lawmakers assembled for a press conference hours after fleeing the state as part of a Hail Mary effort to block the state’s GOP majority from passing a bill to restrict voting access.
That play will likely fail, and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott can muscle the legislation into law at some point soon. In the meantime, the lawmakers used their newfound platform to point to the building behind them—the Democratic-run Capitol—as emblematic of unacceptable inaction from the governing party.
“I hope the speech goes well, I’m sure the words are lovely,” said James Talarico, a Democratic state legislator from the Austin area. “But what we need to see is action, and we needed to see it yesterday.”
Having tried and failed to attain majorities in Austin for two decades, Texas Democrats are baffled why Washington Democrats seemingly won’t use theirs—by ending the filibuster, Talarico told The Daily Beast.
“Our Democratic counterparts at the federal level have majorities, they have the House, the Senate, and the White House,” he said, “and they can't seem to get their act together.”
If that unified message from Texas Democrats was heard by Biden, he apparently wasn’t swayed. In his speech, the president did note concrete steps that his administration has taken to expand voting rights and access, from a Department of Justice lawsuit over “discriminatory” legislation in Georgia to Vice President Kamala Harris’ work to increase voter registration, the primary obstacles to passing nationwide voting-rights legislation—the Senate filibuster and a Supreme Court that has shown increasing hostility to the Voting Rights Act of 1965—went unmentioned.
The president’s sidestepping of the filibuster as an issue did not come as a surprise. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that while Biden would “redouble his commitment to using every tool at his disposal to continue to fight to protect the fundamental right of Americans to vote,” that commitment did not include twisting arms in the U.S. Senate in order to create a filibuster exemption for voting rights—despite calls to do so by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and a close Biden ally.
“The filibuster is a legislative process tool—an important one—that warrants debate, but determination about making changes will be made by members of the Senate, not by this president or any president, frankly, moving forward,” Psaki said, noting that Biden does not support eliminating the filibuster, no matter the risk to his domestic agenda.
Indeed, the filibuster has already stymied the For The People Act once—it was blocked by all 50 GOP senators in June—and it looms threateningly over legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, which Democrats have identified as a more targeted and more doable alternative, even though it only has one Republican supporter at the moment.
Though Biden’s continued refusal to entertain support for ending the legislative filibuster has continued to frustrate progressive Democrats, the address does mark a new step in his evolving relationship with the issue of voter access. During the 2020 presidential campaign, when the coronavirus pandemic necessitated a vast expansion of absentee ballot programs in states across the country, Biden remained largely silent about expanding “vote-by-mail” initiatives. At the time, the decision was made to avoid politicizing the issue and drawing fire from Republicans that could sink the success of those programs.
But six months into his administration, with Republicans taking aim at voter rolls and polling locations and early voting regardless of Biden’s participation in the conversation—and former President Trump continuing to fuel the conspiracy theory that he won the election—the president has taken on a more muscular role, even if some Democrats still think it’s pretty weak or borderline nonexistent.
Asked by a reporter on July 8 whether the White House was worried that elevating voting rights as a platform issue would “give Republicans more fodder to make partisan attacks against voting rights,” Psaki responded simply: “No.”
Beyond the White House’s role—at this point largely restricted to messaging—outside efforts to protect voting access are increasingly sharp-elbowed, and better funded. . Harris’ initiative, which Biden highlighted on Tuesday, includes $25 million for the Democratic National Committee’s voter education, protection, registration and outreach programs.
“The Democrats are investing in the tools and technology to register voters, to educate voters, to turn out voters, to protect voters,” Harris said last week in an address at Howard University, the prestigious historically Black university she once attended. “People say, ‘What’s the strategy?’ Well, I just outlined it.”
Harris is set to meet with the Texas Democratic delegation on Tuesday, granting them more face time to press their case to end the filibuster and pass voting legislation with the administration’s official point person on voting rights.
But their problems don’t end with the White House. Democrats also want to increase the pressure on the Democratic caucus’ main filibuster holdouts, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), to reconsider. Manchin will reportedly meet with the Texas legislators soon for a private discussion, but both he and Sinema have consistently affirmed their intent to uphold the 60-vote rule for all legislation.
Some legislators offered a preview of their case to this tough audience: compromise.
“If we can't take the whole apple, let's take a bite of the apple,” said Texas state Rep. Celia Israel. “Let’s work with Sinema and Manchin on… the one or two things that you can work with, and let's find some victory here and quit being deadlocked.”