President Joe Biden on Tuesday derided voter suppression and election subversion efforts, calling for Republican legislators to step up amid such efforts across the nation and asking, "Have you no shame?"
"We'll be asking my Republican friends in Congress, in the states and cities and counties, to stand up, for God's sake, and help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame?" Biden said, after pointing to 28 restrictive voting laws enacted across 17 states and nearly 400 additional bills being proposed.
"Twenty-First-century Jim Crow assault is real," Biden said. "And we're going to challenge it vigorously. … It's no longer just about who gets to vote or making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It's about who gets to count the vote, who gets to count whether or not your vote counted at all."
The president, speaking at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, pushed for a nonpartisan coalition that includes advocates, students, faith leaders, labor leaders, and business executives to counter Republican-driven efforts aimed at limiting access to the ballot box.
Biden's speech comes as he is facing rising pressure from civil rights activists, progressives and some in party leadership to use new and aggressive tactics to combat Republican voting laws. On Monday, Democratic state lawmakers in Texas fled to Washington, D.C., to prevent a quorum in their legislature and stall the GOP elections bill there.
Though Biden did not endorse a carve-out for the legislative filibuster — something activists and a growing number of Democrats are calling for, specifically for their signature voting rights bills — the president highlighted the expansion of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Division and court challenges to protect voting rights.
Biden again called on Congress to pass Democrats' sweeping bill to change the election system and another that would restore key provisions under the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. And he said the Supreme Court's weakening of the Voting Rights Act weeks ago put the burden back on Congress to restore it to its "intended strength."
"We're facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War," Biden said. "Confederates, back then, never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on January the 6th. I'm not saying this to alarm you. I'm saying this because you should be alarmed."
But Biden's decision to omit the filibuster from his speech did not sit well with the racial and social justice coalition Just Democracy.
"President Biden's speech missed the more critical point today: Until Congress eliminates the filibuster, voting rights remain under attack," said Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for the group. "Black and Brown organizers didn't turn out over 80 million voters to elect an organizer in chief."
"Now, it's time for the president and the Senate to do their jobs — use the power of their offices to end the Jim Crow filibuster and change the law to protect voting rights," Spaulding added.
The president also looked back to the country's history of voter suppression, including Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy tests, and the women's suffrage movement, while noting that the 2020 election was the most scrutinized in American history.
"Challenge after challenge brought to local state election officials, state legislatures, state and federal courts, even to the United States Supreme Court, not once but twice," Biden said. "In every case, neither cause nor evidence was found to undermine the national achievement of administering the historic election in the face of such extraordinary challenges."
Republicans shot back at Biden, including retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who accused the president of trivializing the Jim Crow era.
"Suggesting that election integrity measures such as voter ID and prohibitions on ballot harvesting are reminiscent of Jim Crow is false, offensive, and trivializes a dark period of actual systemic racism," Toomey said.
But Biden is severely limited in the actions he can take to protect voting rights, in part by the nature of the presidency but also because of the makeup of Congress, where Democrats have a slim House majority and control an evenly split Senate.
Those limitations, however, are driving Democrats to consider new tactics, including changing the legislative filibuster — which establishes a 60-vote threshold for most legislation to pass through the Senate and allows Republicans to block new voting rights legislation, among other Democratic priorities. And a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are looking to Biden to help make that happen.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), long an opponent of the filibuster, said he hopes to have a conversation with the White House about the procedural rule and that more of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate will change their mind about amending it.
"I'm sure that President Biden could be influential but he'll have to make that decision," Blumenthal said of Biden pushing for a filibuster change. "I hope that he'll do everything possible."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told POLITICO last week that Biden "should endorse" a change to the filibuster and use his power to press Senate Democrats, like centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who are resistant to such a change.
Biden could "pick up the phone and tell Joe Manchin, 'Hey, we should do a carve-out.'" Clyburn said. "I don't care whether he does it in a microphone or on the telephone — just do it."
Asked whether the voting rights bills could realistically reach Biden's desk this year, Clyburn said, "I know it's possible. The question is whether or not it's probable."
"The way is clear, developing the will is what has to be done," he said.
The White House rejected such an approach Monday when asked about Clyburn's comments.
"A determination about making changes will be made by members of the Senate, not by this president or any president, frankly, moving forward," Psaki told reporters Monday when asked about changes to the filibuster.
But pressed on whether Biden sees any role for himself — akin to former President Lyndon B. Johnson's arm-twisting of reluctant Democrats during the battle to pass the Voting Rights Act — in the legislative process, the White House pointed to Biden's rhetoric and current actions.
"If it were waving a magic wand to get voting rights legislation on his desk through any means, he would do that," Psaki said, appearing to argue that Biden's endorsement of a filibuster change wouldn't change the math in the Senate. "But it requires the majority of members in the Senate to support changes to the filibuster."
"What he can do as President is to continue to lift up, elevate, advocate, engage, [and] empower people across the country," Psaki added. "That's the most instructive role he can play."