The fight over voting rights returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday as reality set in about the steep congressional climb ahead of Democrats who want to pass election reform, one day after President Joe Biden in Atlanta gave his strongest push for voting protections yet.
Democratic lawmakers acknowledged the president’s new effort while mirroring his call on the Senate to pass the legislation, while Republicans rebuffed his fiery remarks as extreme and unnecessary.
Biden — who on Tuesday urged senators to change the chamber’s rules if necessary to pass the legislation — prompted an especially fierce reaction from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called his speech “profoundly unpresidential.”
“I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at that podium yesterday,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
“The president’s rant yesterday was incorrect, incoherent, and beneath his office," he added.
The 50-50 Senate is the battleground for the two voting bills Democrats want to pass, since current rules require 60 votes — in this case 10 Republicans — to move legislation forward.
President Biden will meet with Senate Democrats on Thursday on Capitol Hill, the White House said, and he will again reiterate his support for changing the chamber’s rules to make way for voting legislation.
“The question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?” he said on Tuesday.
But with two key Democratic senators surely opposed to the rule change — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — it’s unclear how voting reform bills will clear the hurdle.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised action on two bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act — by next week, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
On the other side of the Capitol on Wednesday, meanwhile, House members in the Congressional Black Caucus painted the moment as critical to prevent suppression against minority voters.
“You’re looking at Black faces. You’re looking at faces that are the direct target of the lack of voting protection,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
They pointed to the 19 states that have passed 34 laws restrictive to voting in the last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, the most in any year since the organization began tracking voting legislation in 2011.
“The voter suppression epidemic that has been unleashed by the radical right, unacceptable, unreasonable, unfathomable, unconscionable and un-American,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “We must crush it. And we will crush it.”
But the path forward is rocky and the passage of voting rights is ultimately up to Congress.
The president and the vice president will be “working the phones” in the next several days to push members of the Senate to get on board, the White House said.
And the Biden administration also responded to criticism about his call to change Senate rules, something Democrats have resisted in the past.
“The president loves the Senate. He's an institutionalist. But what we're experiencing this past year is different,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told Spectrum News in an interview.
“What we're seeing across the country with bills meant to take away people's right to vote and suppress the right to vote is a crisis to our democracy.”