Vice President Kamala Harris, in an acerbic Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, called on senators to pass stalled voting rights bills or be “complicit” in disenfranchising people.
Harris’ stern pitch to fellow Democrats on Monday follows President Biden’s controversial speech last week that likened Republican senators to racists for blocking the bills.
“[King] pushed for racial justice, for economic justice and for the freedom that unlocks all others, the freedom to vote. Today, our freedom to vote is under assault,” Harris said in web-streamed remarks.
“In Georgia and across our nation, anti-voter laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote — 55 million Americans. That is one out of six people in our country.”
She added: “The proponents of these laws are not only putting in place obstacles to the ballot box, they are also working to interfere with our elections to get the outcomes they want and to discredit those they do not. That is not how democracies work. We know the threat we face.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is preparing to call a vote as early as this week on rule changes that would allow federal election reforms to bypass the usual 60-vote threshold for legislation to proceed. But the effort is doomed due to opposition from centrists to allowing for a bare majority in the evenly divided Senate, where Harris breaks ties.
“Last week, the president and I visited Atlanta to deliver a message: It is time for the United States Senate to do its job. A landmark bill, as we all know, sits before the US Senate, the Freedom to Vote John R. Lewis Act. This bill represents the first real opportunity to secure the freedom to vote since the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act nearly a decade ago. And the Senate must pass this bill now,” Harris said.
“As Dr. King said, the only normalcy you would accept is a normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children. Today, we must not be complacent or complicit. We must not give up. And we must not give in. To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all.”
Biden’s speech calling on the Senate to set aside the legislative filibuster flopped as Republicans took issue with his rhetoric likening them to George Wallace and Jefferson Davis. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it “profoundly unpresidential.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Party centrist Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia restated their opposition to lowering the threshold to 50 votes, meaning the rule change pushed by Biden, Harris and Schumer cannot go forward.
“What is the legislative filibuster, other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross-section of Americans?” Sinema said on the Senate floor.
“A guardrail, inevitably viewed as an obstacle by whoever holds the Senate majority; but which in reality ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process.”
Manchin said in a statement after her speech, “Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country by putting politics and party aside.”
Biden claimed in his controversial speech that “forces that attempted a coup” were behind recent laws in GOP-led states, referring to last year’s Capitol riot, which disrupted certification of his victory in the Electoral College.
“Do you want to be the side of Dr. King 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?” Biden said.
McConnell, who repeatedly condemned the voter fraud claims that Biden said propelled the state changes, slammed Biden’s speech as “unpresidential” and a “rant.”
“I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at that podium yesterday,” McConnell said. Biden was “shouting that 52 senators and millions of Americans are racist unless he gets whatever he wants,” McConnell said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Biden was going “down the same tragic road taken by President [Donald] Trump casting doubt on the reliability of American elections.” Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, voted to convict Trump in two Senate impeachment trials and harshly criticized him during the 2016 campaign.
Republicans generally defend the recent state election laws as attempts to reduce fraud and end COVID-19 pandemic policies that expanded mail-in voting, and they argue that administering elections is a state responsibility.
Critics also say Biden has misrepresented the state laws. The Washington Post gave Biden “Four Pinocchios” in April for falsely describing the Georgia law’s impact on voting hours.
The Georgia law doesn’t alter Election Day hours but expands early voting by adding a second mandatory Saturday. It affirms that counties can open for early voting on two Sundays and allows counties to extend early voting hours beyond normal business hours. Democrats oppose provisions that require a photo ID to get an absentee ballot, shorten the window of time to vote absentee and allow state officials to take over local election offices in response to alleged misconduct.
The Biden-backed federal bills include legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would force certain states to gain federal approval for changes to election laws, responding to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that reduced post-civil rights era oversight.
Another bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, would make Election Day a holiday, force states to allow no-excuse mail-in voting and require that most jurisdictions allow 10 hours per day of early voting for two weeks before an election. That bill would bar states from requiring people to show ID to get a mail-in ballot.