President Biden calls for filibuster changes to pass voting rights bills : The NPR Politics Podcast In a fiery speech in Atlanta Tuesday, President Biden urged the Senate to change filibuster rules in order to pass new voting rights protections. But Senate Democrats are divided on filibuster changes, and voting rights advocates say fiery remarks are not enough in the wake of laws passed in 19 states that restrict ballot access.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and political correspondent Juana Summers.

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President Biden calls for filibuster changes to pass voting rights bills

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SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: And I'm Juana Summers, and I cover politics.

DETROW: All right. And we are coming to you a little later today, recording at 5:34 p.m. Eastern because President Biden just wrapped up a major speech on voting rights. He and Vice President Harris went to a highly symbolic location - Atlanta, Ga., the state that saw close Democratic wins in the 2020 cycle that gave the party the White House and the Senate, and the state where Republicans responded by passing voting restrictions. And as Biden noted, it's the cradle of the civil rights movement. As he said, he and Harris visited Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave before delivering their speeches. Biden made major news in the speech. He urged the Senate to change filibuster rules in order to pass two voting rights bills that are stalled in the Senate.

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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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

DETROW: And, Juana, let's start with that legislation, the context that these bills were introduced in and just why Biden and Harris see the stakes as so high here.

SUMMERS: Yeah. So just to be clear about the two bills that we're talking about here, Scott, they're two separate pieces of legislation. The first is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the federal government's authority to review certain state voting laws to prevent discrimination. And the second bill is the Freedom to Vote Act. Now, that's a much broader bill, and it would create national rules for voting by mail, early voting, and impact other parts of the electoral process. And these are two pieces of legislation that have gone through the House and that have stalled in the Senate amid Republican opposition and the filibuster.

Now, recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed that he would bring these bills to the floor quickly. He has indicated that Senate action could come as soon as this week in an effort to counter these threats of voter suppression. And I've been covering voting rights for a while now. And I - and when you ask about why the stakes are so high, I think back to the speech that the president gave last summer in Philadelphia where he described the fight against Republican-led restrictive voting laws in states, including Georgia, where he spoke today, as the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. And frankly, he's been under a lot of pressure, not just from Democrats in Washington...

DETROW: Yeah.

SUMMERS: ...But from activists across the country, to do something about this issue and to take a more aggressive stance.

DETROW: Yeah. And we'll talk about that pressure in a moment. But, Ayesha, one of the things that was notable for me - and Biden's changing language on the filibuster was notable. But the other thing was, like, you know, over the last year, one of the challenges he had is that he was not exactly out there, you know, gathering support, building a drumbeat to get his stuff passed. He would give these speeches allegedly about passing Build Back Better. He mentioned it, like, two or three times, and that was it. He was forceful today. He said pass these bills. I'm tired of being quiet about this - you know, basically pounding the lectern, telling the Senate to do something. I mean, what do you think changed here?

RASCOE: Well, I think that, you know, just like Juana mentioned, it's - there is an incredible amount of pressure. And you've had this sort of - I mean, you've had this very strong language in the past, just about the importance of the bills and how, you know, this is the most important thing to us. This is the biggest priority. This is democracy at stake. But, you know, as Juana said, you know, activists are like, well, if that's the case, you've got to put something out there. You have to get something done.

DETROW: Yeah.

RASCOE: And you kind of have to put up or shut up. And so today, what he seemed to be saying was - demanding that something be done and, not only that, saying, you need to pass these bills. You need to do whatever. Stop - you know, he stopped, you know, kind of toying around the idea of making changes to the filibuster and said outright, this has to happen. And I think part of it - you know, Vice President Harris, she spoke before Biden. She mentioned, like, the stakes of this moment and basically said this may be the last chance of this era because things could change.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: And these two bills represent the first real opportunity to secure the freedom to vote since the United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act nearly a decade ago. We do not know when we will have this opportunity again.

RASCOE: You're going to have an election in 2022, a midterm election. They don't know that they're going to keep the House or the Senate - definitely the House. Traditionally, you know, the president's party has losses. And they're holding on by very small margins in the House.

DETROW: Yeah.

RASCOE: So this may be the last opportunity to act.

DETROW: So, Juana, Biden gives this big speech, really, you know, builds on this idea of, this is a once-a-century test of democracy - almost shames senators in a way, saying, do you want to be on the side of advancing civil rights or restricting the vote? How did that play with Biden's allies, with advocates working on this issue, with the people who, as you noted, have wanted more from him up until this point?

SUMMERS: Yeah. There were a group of Georgia voting rights activists who actually decided to not attend the speech because they were skeptical of the White House's approach to all of this. But one person I did speak to who did attend the speech was the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson. And he told me before the speech that he believed that the speech needed to be a first step. He made the link, as Biden did, to what happened on January 6, the insurrection, making the case that that was a seminal moment in history, but that the methodical breaking down of the right to vote in these 19 states that have passed restrictive voting laws in the last year was also a threat to democracy. And now that the speech has ended, Derrick Johnson put out a statement. It's very short, so I'm going to read part of it. He says that unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency around voting rights as he did for Build Back Better in infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable. While President Biden delivered a stirring speech today, it's time for this administration to match their words with actions and for Congress to do their job. Voting rights should not simply be a priority. It must be the priority.

And that really harkens to me to what I heard from a lot of activists and folks who work on these issues closely before the speech. They are glad that the president is giving the speech. They have, in fact, been calling on the president to give a speech like this one for months now and to put himself at the center of this fight. And I think he did that today. But what they're saying now is that a speech is not the end-all, be-all. There has to be a next step and a next step and a next step and whatever number of steps it takes, I think they would argue, until a bill gets signed. And as you and I and Ayesha all know, the math is really tough on Capitol Hill.

DETROW: Yeah. And, Ayesha, that's tricky because - I mean, I think the White House - I think you could take it as face value that they are existentially concerned about this, right? But they're also trying to pass their agenda, and that agenda is stalled. So if you're trying to pass voting rights bills and if you're trying to get your massive legislation that deals with climate, another existential thing and another thing where time is running out to address it, how do you divide that line, especially when, again, it's that exact same skeptical audience that's going to decide the fate of all these things? Biden said at one point today with a 50-50 Senate, there are 51 presidents.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

DETROW: And he's right, I mean, especially Manchin and Sinema, who have been very clearly willing to say no to the president.

RASCOE: Yeah. I mean, the thing about that statement that Juana read is that Build Back Better didn't get passed. So Biden put a lot of energy behind it.

DETROW: Yeah.

RASCOE: But it has not gotten passed. So - and not saying that it won't, but at this point, it has not. So this is a situation where it is going to take not only pressure, but it seems like it's going to take some real legislative maneuvering if Biden is going to be able to get something done on voting rights. And, you know, as he said, you know, I think presidents will often not want to say that there are, like, 51 presidents because it makes them seem, quote, unquote, "weaker." But that's - but the numbers are the numbers.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break - more on this, especially what it means for the Senate, when we're back.

OK, we are back. And I don't know which one of you, Juana or Ayesha, wants to field this. But as best as we know, what are we talking about here when we talk about Biden, you know, urging changes to the filibuster rule to get these bills passed?

SUMMERS: So what I understand from my conversations with folks on the Hill, as well as some of the advocates that I talk to, is that discussions are kind of around two main alternatives. The first one is creating some sort of a carve-out which would simply exempt bills relating to voting rights like the ones we've been talking about from the 60-vote threshold needed to pass major legislation. And the second one is establishing what's called a talking filibuster, kind of that old-school maneuver where senators would have to physically hold the floor to block a vote on legislation.

Now, of course, in his remarks today, President Biden said he would be open to whatever rules, changes it would take, whatever changes need to happen to make sure these bill lead to his desk. But those are kind of the two big buckets of thought that are going around right now.

DETROW: This is largely an intramural Democratic discussion right now. But, again, it's a 50-50 Senate. So Democrats have the majority but really only because of that tie-breaking vote. How Republicans view this is important, and it is worth saying this conversation is happening because no Republican at the moment supports either of these bills. But, Ayesha, what has Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said about this? How have Republicans responded to this move from Biden?

RASCOE: Well, Republicans are saying that this is a power grab from Democrats. And they are threatening that - if Democrats go ahead with this, that they will face serious consequences from Republicans, who, especially with such tight numbers in the Senate, can try to slow some things down. Here's what McConnell had to say about that.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory.

RASCOE: We should say that McConnell and Republicans have not been playing along with Democrats anyway. Like, I mean, like, that's the fact - that the Senate has had a lot of issues before this. People would argue that some of the actions that McConnell has taken, like not loading on, you know, former President Obama's Supreme Court nominee - like, there are lots of things that have happened.

DETROW: So, Juana, we've got this message that Biden is trying to amplify. He's trying to get people to care more about this, to get more engaged on this. He's also trying to convince senators. You just - you've been reporting that the key players in this fight seem less than impressed with today's speech. So what do you think is the most important factor you will be looking for in the coming weeks to see if this changes anything?

SUMMERS: So I think one of the biggest things that struck me as I listened to the speech is just how aggressively both the president and the vice president raised the stakes in this debate, right? Vice President Harris made it clear that the country should not accept these kinds of restrictive voting laws like those that have passed in Georgia and elsewhere as a new normal. President Biden compared some of the things that are happening right now to some of the abuses that happened during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As I think you pointed out, Scott, they point out that this is a once-in-a-century situation that the country sits in.

And the other thing that I thought was very interesting about the way, in particular, President Biden talked about this is he made a multiracial, multigenerational argument. I think often when we talk about voting rights and even sometimes when we cover voting rights, we talk about this as an issue that only impacts Black and brown folks in this country. And while they are certainly disproportionately impacted by some of these restrictive laws - as are young people, as are poor people, as are disabled people - they made it clear that frankly, this is an issue that every person in America should care about because it is about the bedrock of democracy.

And I think he made the point that activists have been making at me for the past year now - that if the right to vote is not protected, it is the right that unlocks all other rights, as some might say. If that falls apart, everything falls apart.

DETROW: All right. This is one of those days where, Juana, you especially have reported on basically every single platform that NPR distributes the news in. So we're checking out those various other platforms for a lot more on this issue and what comes next. But that is it for the podcast today. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

SUMMERS: And I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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