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Biden Backs Filibuster Reform to Pass Voting Rights Bills After Sustained Grassroots Pressure

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Image Credit: Twitter: @AFLCIOGeorgia

We go to Atlanta, Georgia, where President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke on Tuesday to pressure Congress to pass critical voting rights legislation. Biden endorsed changing the Senate rules to prevent a minority of senators from filibustering the bills. We speak to two leaders in the voting rights movement about the importance of passing the bills, particularly for people of color. “Right now 40 senators can stop 100 senators from having a vote, and that is absolutely unheard of anywhere else in our democracy,” says Ben Jealous, who attended Biden’s speech and is president of People for the American Way and former president of the NAACP. Biden should prioritize voting rights and “follow up the speech yesterday with actions,” says Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, who boycotted Biden’s address.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a major speech in Atlanta, Georgia, President Biden has endorsed changing the filibuster rules to prevent Republicans from using the filibuster to block voting rights legislation. Biden spoke in Atlanta.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I believe the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote, let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden spoke in Atlanta after he and Vice President Kamala Harris laid a wreath at Martin Luther King Jr.'s crypt and visited the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where MLK was pastor. During his speech, Biden referenced King's struggle to secure voting rights.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? That’s the question they’ll answer. Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no?

And here’s one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights. And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.

So I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be on 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? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to introduce proposals to change the filibuster rules as early as today in an effort to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. But it remains unclear if Democrats have enough votes due to possible opposition from Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Democratic lawmakers drafted the two bills in part because 19 states, including Georgia, passed new laws to restrict voting access in the wake of the 2020 election.

A number of voting rights groups in Georgia, including the group Black Voters Matter, boycotted Biden’s speech, saying they needed concrete action, not a “photo op.” Also not there was Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor and is the leading voting rights advocate.

We’re joined now by Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter. Also joining us is Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, former president of the NAACP. He traveled to Atlanta to hear Biden’s address.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. On this issue, you were on two sides, but you’re together on the issue of voting rights. Ben, let’s begin with you. Why did you attend the address? Talk about what you think should come out of it?

BEN JEALOUS: So, to checking in with my good friend and former cellmate Cliff Albright. It was important to me to be there to make sure that Biden actually followed through on our demand that he call on the Senate, and to celebrate when he did. You know, we had been to jail, hundreds of us. We had called the White House, hundreds of thousands of us. We had written the White House, millions of us signing petitions. And as one of the leaders of that movement, for me, it was a moment to really celebrate all the activists and celebrate the president joining us in this push.

At the same time, I deeply respect Cliff and his work and Black Voters Matter and totally understood why they were not there. What’s important is that we remain on the battlefield together, pushing forward together, and we’re all very clear. In the final analysis, the only thing that will matter is getting these laws passed, and passed now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, why did you decide to stay away? And also, the importance, from your perspective, of President Biden making this speech?

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Yeah. Good morning to you all.

And yeah, I just want to reiterate what my good friend Ben said. As a matter of fact, we met and broke bread and had some laughs before the speech, so we weren’t putting out a call for other groups, for national groups to not attend. We just made a decision as Georgia-based organizations that we needed to make a strong statement that we didn’t think that he should even be in Georgia giving a speech. We would have preferred that he was in D.C. giving a speech. We actually preferred that he was at the Senate giving a speech directly to the senators, so that they could then do what? They could actually, as Amy said that they’re planning on doing, reintroducing some of this legislation and reforms to the filibuster today. Guess what: They could have actually started yesterday. But they weren’t in D.C. And so, that was really what our position was.

It’s not out of any spite for Joe Biden. You know, we like Joe, right? And we believe that he wants to do right. In fact, as we said at many of the demonstrations that Ben and I were at, getting arrested at, over the summer and fall, what we repeatedly say is we’re not doing this because we don’t expect anything out of Joe Biden or because we think ill of him; it’s because we expect more out of him. We know that he’s got the skills to get more done, after 40 years of being in the Senate, that he can whip two votes. So, that’s what our position was about.

But there’s absolutely no daylight between us and any of the organizations that attended. In fact, shortly later on today, we’ll be doing a joint presser and debrief with some of the organizations, including Ben and People for the American Way and some of the other organizations, that we have been in these streets for, for months, asking the president to do exactly what he wound up doing yesterday. That speech was a speech that was written by movement. It was written by movement power, because it’s movement power that brought Joe Biden from where he was months ago, saying that modifying or ending the filibuster will be chaos, to the speech we saw yesterday, which was a strong call for the filibuster to be modified for voting rights.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, I wanted to ask you — the president focused largely on the obstructionism of Republicans on this legislation, but you’re a veteran of these civil rights battles. You know that it’s not just Republican-controlled states that hold back voter participation. Democratic states, like New York and Delaware, have very limited provisions for voter participation. In Illinois right now the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund is challenging the redistricting proposal of a blue state because it doesn’t provide sufficient representation for the Latino population of Chicago. So, isn’t really voter suppression sometimes a bipartisan issue of incumbents?

BEN JEALOUS: Oh, absolutely. You know, I spent a good part of my childhood in Monterey County, California, which you’ll recall was included in Section 5 because of its discrimination against Chicanos. And the reality is that there are still games played. In Delaware — when we were expanding voting rights in Maryland, we went to Democrats in Delaware. I was leading the NAACP. And we asked them to do early voting, like we were doing in Maryland, and same-day registration. And they said only for the general, not for the primary. And it was pretty obvious to us in the NAACP at the time that they didn’t want more Black folks flooding into any primary and upsetting the balance of power in their own party. And so, sure, games are played.

One of the most important things of the Freedom to Vote Act is the ways in which it will force transparency in all the dark money that floods in. You know, you look at my state, Maryland, it looks like Larry Hogan will be getting into this Senate race. He certainly seems to be doing everything he can. And right now it looks like he would likely beat our sitting senator, Chris Van Hollen. Well, he gets into this race, it will become the most expensive Senate race in the country. You’ll see dark money flood in. As a Marylander, I am eager to see this law passed, so that when the Koch brothers are buying ads for Larry Hogan, we know.

AMY GOODMAN: Cliff Albright, talk about the voter suppression laws passed in Georgia at this point. You’re talking about ballot boxes being dramatically reduced for the next election, among other things. And the talk about it nationally.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Yeah, definitely. Thank you, Amy. Let me say something real quick on the previous question. Some of the members of this Georgia coalition are GALEO, the Latino organization, Jerry Gonzalez; Asian Americans Advancing Justice. They’ve been pushing for more provisions in the voting rights legislation related to language justice, right? And so, that’s a very issue I’m glad that you raised. I just wanted to add that in there on behalf of our Georgia partners.

In regards to the Georgia bill, yes, I mean, some of the most dangerous provisions — everybody knows about the food and water restrictions. The vice president spoke about that, and I don’t think her speech is getting enough attention. You know, obviously, the president was the headliner talking about the filibuster. But, you know, the vice president talked about — 

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Cliff, why don’t we do — why don’t we go to Vice President Harris, of course, the first African American vice president in the United States. You’re right, a lot of the B-roll that you see is her walking with the president, and you even see her going to the podium. But as soon as the words come out, they’re President Biden’s. This is Kamala Harris speaking about voting rights in Atlanta.

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: My fellow Americans, do not succumb to those who would dismiss this assault on voting rights as an unfounded threat, who would wave this off as a partisan game. The assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American, in every community, in every political party. And if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Vice President Kamala Harris. And by the way, they were speaking at the Morehouse-Clark Atlanta University complex, two historically Black colleges, right near the residence hall of Martin Luther King Jr., after having just come from his and Coretta Scott’s grave, their crypt, with the family of Dr. King, who, I think, to the end, was deciding — Martin Luther King III — whether to be a part of this. But, Cliff, keep going.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Yeah. In terms of the Georgia bill, in addition to the food and water, one of the most dangerous provisions — and this is something that we’re seeing in several of these bills in several states — are the attacks on election administration, on election subversion, the attacks on election officials, both at the state level as well as at the local level. Of course, in Arizona, they took away some powers from the Arizona secretary of state. In Georgia, what the bill allows them to do is it allows the Republican Legislature to actually take over some local boards of elections. And we’ve already seen them replacing board members in some counties within the state already, and so it’s already having an impact.

And that’s one of the most dangerous pieces, because what it means is, regardless of what we do to organize and mobilize folks, and regardless of what the vote counts are, literally, if this bill — if this law was in place in November of 2020, when Donald Trump was calling up the secretary of state of Georgia, asking him to go out and find 11,700 votes, this bill would have made it easier for that Republican secretary of state to do that, right? He could have either found some votes, or, more importantly, he could have gotten rid of some votes in just one county, Fulton County. That would have been able to tip the scales of the election. He couldn’t do that. Be clear, the Georgia secretary of state is no profile in courage. He would have done it if he had the power to do it. He didn’t then, but they do now because of this bill. That’s the most dangerous provision.

And then, of course, it gets into other things like, you know, the days of early voting and attacks on vote by mail. In fact, they’re trying to go even further, and this is what we’ve got to keep in mind. Even now states are coming back into session. Georgia just started its new session, and they’re trying to go further by trying to get rid of drop boxes in the state. And so the attack has not ended. That’s why we need this legislation this week.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And now, Cliff, some critics have said that President Biden is acting too late now at this point, that he should have acted sooner. But isn’t the history of these battles — President Johnson had to be dragged, basically, kicking and screaming, to approve the Voting Rights Act. And at that time he had a huge majority in Congress for the Democratic Party. Of course, there were a lot of Dixiecrats in the Democratic Party at that time that made it more difficult for him. But usually when presidents decide to take a strong stand, it’s after enormous pressure has been put upon them by mass movements, isn’t it?

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: Look, at the end of the day, Frederick Douglass told us a long time ago: Power concedes nothing without a demand. And so, we knew that it was going to take some — actually, we didn’t think it was going to take this much pressure. We thought that after January 6 last year, that one of the first things President Biden would have done when he came in would have been to deal with voting rights. We know, obviously, we were in the midst of COVID at that time, but still we thought that voting rights was fresh and needed to be dealt with immediately. But we knew that it was going to take some pushback and some organizing to make it happen. We didn’t think it was going to take more than a year. But again, you know, Ben and I and other organizations, hundreds of organizations, have been pushing for this, in order to have power do what it should be doing, for the entire year. So, we’re not naive. We knew that it was going to take that. We knew that in ’65 it took exactly that. And we were prepared to do our part.

But, you know, there was a graphic that was put up on another program yesterday where it showed the number of speeches the president gave on COVID, the number he gave on infrastructure and the number on voting rights. Before yesterday, the last speech he gave on voting rights was in July. And so six months went by with no action, at least no public or noticeable action, on the issue of voting rights. And it was put behind other issues on the list of the agenda, which, again, that’s what we were arguing for, to move it up in terms of prioritization.

So, yes, it’s late, but, you know, I think Dr. King said something like it’s always a good time — it’s always the right time to do right. Right now is the right time to do right. If he can follow up the speech yesterday with actions, pressuring Manchin and Sinema, helping Senator Schumer to do so — and it’s not just the president. We need other senators that support voting rights to also encourage their colleagues, right? And that’s been happening more over the past two weeks as more Democratic senators who had been on the fence about filibuster reform have started to come out — Maggie Hassan, Angus King — right? — Kaine in Virginia. That’s what we need to have happen over these next few days as Senator Schumer reintroduces this legislation. Everybody’s got a role to play. But we’re definitely glad that the president has now leaned in a little bit more in regards to filibuster reform.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s hear what President Joe Biden said about filibuster reform when it comes to voting rights.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together, but to pull it further apart. Filibuster has been weaponized and abused.

While the state legislatures’ assault on voting rights is simple — all you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority — in the United States Senate, it takes a supermajority, 60 votes, even to get a vote — instead of 50 — to protect the right to vote. State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities. If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.

Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights. When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate. I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is President Biden yesterday. Ben Jealous, can you explain? The argument is, if you carve out for voting rights, then if the Republicans gain power, they’ll do this. But if they gain power, they will do it anyway. In 2017, they did a carveout for Supreme Court justices. They don’t need 60 votes. Just recently, you had the carveout for the debt limit. Can you explain how this would work?

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah. I mean, to be clear, there’s been carveouts like 160 times in U.S. history. And you’re absolutely right: The Republicans have no problem using their power, breaking promises. They’ve done it again and again. So, for us to not use power because we fear them using power is ridiculous. And if only we protect voting rights for one more election, that’s critical.

Now, the way that this would work, actually there’s many options, Amy. One of the things, you know, when you listen to folks, some folks say, “Well, I’m not for getting rid of the filibuster, but I am OK with rules reform.” It was so important that Amy Klobuchar was there yesterday, who’s head of the Rules Committee, because everybody knows there are many ways to do this. You simply could retain the filibuster but lower the threshold, basically, with each round of debate for what it takes to get a vote to the floor, until you get to a simple majority. The bottom line is that right now 40 senators can stop 100 senators from having a vote. And that is absolutely unheard of anywhere else in our democracy. It was not intended by the Founders to occur in our Senate. It has brought Washington to a standstill. And it’s got to change.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, both today in Atlanta, Georgia, after the speeches of president and vice president Biden and Harris.

Next, we go to the Bronx, where 17 people, the majority children, have died in a massive fire — eight children — at an apartment building. Who’s to blame? Stay with us.

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