WASHINGTON — An impassioned President Joe Biden on Thursday condemned efforts in Republican-led state legislatures to pass bills making access to the ballot box more difficult, calling it “all by design” to suppress voters.
“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Biden said during his first White House press conference. “It’s sick. It’s sick.”
Biden singled out some of the most draconian of the more than 253 bills introduced in 43 states that would restrict access to voting. The tally is according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which is tracking the legislation.
“Deciding in some states that you cannot bring water to people standing in line waiting to vote?” Biden said. “Deciding that you’re going to end voting at 5 o’clock when working people are just getting off work? Deciding that there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances? It’s all by design.”
Some bills filed in several states would reduce early voting hours, roll back absentee voting and end voting on Sundays. Democrats have alleged the legislation is aimed foremost at suppressing voters of color.
Biden predicted the efforts will be stopped “because it’s the most pernicious thing.”
“This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” he said. “I mean, this is gigantic, what they’re trying to do. And it cannot be sustained.”
As his top priority to stop the sweeping changes at the state-level, Biden pointed to passage of the voting rights bill H.R. 1 — the For The People Act — which passed the Democratic-controlled House but awaits Senate approval.
Filibuster could halt voting rights legislation
It faces an uphill battle, however, to pass the evenly split Senate, where it would need 60 votes to defeat a potential filibuster by Republicans. That’s led some Democrats to push for a change in Senate rules to abolish the filibuster, allowing voting rights and election legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Biden said the filibuster is “being abused in a gigantic way” but stopped short of saying he supports getting rid of it outright. Instead, he said he backs a return to the talking filibuster – the old Senate rules that required a senator to stand and continue speaking to keep a filibuster alive.
“Guess what?” Biden said. “People got tired of talking and tired of collapsing. The filibusters broke down. Were able to break the filibuster, get a quorum and vote. So I strongly support going in that direction.”
Yet he seemed to leave the door open to backing more expansive filibuster reform.
“We’re going to get a lot done,” Biden said. “And if we have to – if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster – then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
Biden said he would also seek to bring greater education to voting rights, adding that even his Republican friends have called out what Republican state lawmakers and governors are trying to do.
“The Republican voters I know,” he said, raising his voice, “find this despicable. Republican voters – folks outside this White House. I’m not talking about the elected officials. I’m talking about voters.”
Biden was asked whether there is anything else besides legislation he can do to combat the GOP efforts.
“The answer is yes, but I’m not going to lay out a strategy in front of the whole world and you now” he said.
Fierce fight over voting rights bill
Senators debated S1, a companion to the House measure, for the first time at a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing Wednesday, with Democratic and Republican lawmakers engaging in fiery exchanges over the legislation.
Supporters of the GOP proposals argue their voter security measures help guard against voter fraud and that states should be allowed to continue to run their own elections.
In a sign of the brewing battle, national voting rights and civil rights groups have launched campaigns to pressure Congress to approve the measure. A national civic engagement group, led by former first lady Michelle Obama and other Democrats, sent an open letter Tuesday calling for their support of the bill.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an ad campaign Thursday targeting Democrats in key states, including Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia who is up for reelection in 2022 . Warnock has vowed to support the Democratic voting rights bill.
“Here we are in 2021 still fighting for our voting rights. It is frustrating. It is outrageous,’’ he said Thursday at the Black Women’s Roundtable, a national coalition of civil engagement groups, virtual conference. “We cannot allow them to wear us down.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @Joeygarrison and Deborah Berry @dberrygannett.