Biden seeks changes to Senate rules to protect voting rights

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris depart Air Force One in Atlanta oon Thursday  ahead of a speech on voting rights. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris depart Air Force One in Atlanta oon Thursday ahead of a speech on voting rights. (Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Invoking the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Joe Biden called for changing U.S. Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation.

Joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden — on the campus of Morehouse College — also called on Congress to pass election legislation in a passionate speech about protecting voting rights.

“Today, I’m making it clear: protect our democracy,” the president said. “I support changing our Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”

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220111-Atlanta-Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

220111-Atlanta-Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220111-Atlanta-Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

In her speech, Harris took aim at Georgia’s new restrictive election law.

“We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it more difficult for students to vote is normal,” she said. “We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it illegal to help a voter with a disability vote by mail is normal. There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines.”

Biden spoke for 40 minutes on the importance of passing federal voting legislation, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol fueled by election misinformation, plus new laws that Georgia and other Republican-led states passed that make it harder to cast a ballot.

“I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months,” he said, banging his hand on the lectern for emphasis. “I’m tired of being quiet.”

The president also gave his most enthusiastic endorsement to date for either eliminating the filibuster or changing Senate rules so that federal election bills can pass without any Republican support.

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220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden speaks about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The reality in Washington is that the legislation Biden and Harris want the Senate to pass is opposed by Republicans, and Democrats don’t have the votes to change the rules so that the bills can pass without any GOP support.

One proposal would create national standards for election management, redistricting and campaign finance, while the second, which is named for Lewis, would reinstate federal review of changes to state and local election laws in municipalities that meet certain criteria. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants a vote on both bills, including any necessary rule changes, before Monday, which is the federal holiday named for King.

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220111-Atlanta-The Rev. Al Sharpton before President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

220111-Atlanta-The Rev. Al Sharpton before President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220111-Atlanta-The Rev. Al Sharpton before President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Republicans oppose these proposals, saying Congress should not tell states how to run elections and accusing Democrats of attempting to change laws in ways that keep them in control.

Democrats say they need for federal standards became necessary after Republican-controlled states such as Georgia passed new, restrictive voting laws partially in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud and mismanagement.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called Biden “out of touch with reality” Tuesday for advocating for new federal laws. Georgia’s new law, Senate Bill 202, helped build confidence in election security, Kemp said.

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Georgia Governor Brian Kemp remarks at a press conference in response to President Joe Biden’s visit to Georgia and push for voting rights changes. Kemp stands by the laws regulating voting in Georgia on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp remarks at a press conference in response to President Joe Biden’s visit to Georgia and push for voting rights changes.  Kemp stands by the laws regulating voting in Georgia on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia Governor Brian Kemp remarks at a press conference in response to President Joe Biden’s visit to Georgia and push for voting rights changes. Kemp stands by the laws regulating voting in Georgia on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

”The facts are simple: SB 202 expands early voting opportunities, secures drop boxes around the clock, reduces long lines at polling places and implements the very same voter ID requirement for absentee ballots that we’ve had for in-person voting for well over a decade,” he said.

The failure to pass federal voting rights legislation has left advocates frustrated. Leaders of several voting rights groups active in Georgia announced that they would not attend the speeches, saying they wanted to send a message to the White House that action in Washington, and not grand speeches, should be the priority.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement after the speech that Biden should work just as hard to pass voting legislation as he did on the infrastructure package and climate change and social spending legislation that is still pending in Congress.

“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,” Johnson said. “Voting rights should not simply be a priority — it must be THE priority.”

Stacey Abrams, Georgia’s most prominent voting rights activist and a candidate for governor, also did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict. Biden told reporters prior to departing the White House on Tuesday morning that he had spoken to Abrams and they are on the same page.

Biden and Harris started their day in Atlanta on Auburn Avenue in a visit to the King Center, where they met with members of the King family.

In a brief ceremony, Martin Luther King III laid a wreath on his parents’ crypt. Standing beside him were his sister Bernice, his wife and daughter, and Christine King Farris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sister.

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visit the King Center to promote voting rights legislation Tuesday, January 11, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

 President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visit the King Center to promote voting rights legislation Tuesday, January 11, 2021.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris visit the King Center to promote voting rights legislation Tuesday, January 11, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Neither Biden nor Harris spoke at the two-minute ceremony, but moments later, the president fielded one question as they were greeted at the door of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church by its pastor, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“Keep the faith,” Biden said when asked whether he had enough votes for a voting rights bill.

Bernice King, who met with Biden and Harris for about an hour before the ceremony, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the meeting.

Calling the timing of the meeting a “divine moment,” King, the CEO of the King Center, said she mentioned to Biden that the messaging behind the voting rights bill is getting lost and that she wishes what was said in the meeting would be said to the public.

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220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris leave the stage after speaking about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris leave the stage after speaking about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220111-Atlanta-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris leave the stage after speaking about voting rights during at Clark Atlanta University on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

She said Biden and Harris invited her to help the White House with messaging — an offer she is considering.

“This is a sacred space. Some people may not feel this, but when my mother founded the King Center, she wanted it to be that type of space,” King said. “So them coming here, it is going to at least recalibrate some things for this renaissance. If not, the universe will hold the president and the vice president accountable.

“You can’t come this close to Dr. and Mrs. King, for the very thing they gave their whole lives for, and leave and just go back to business as usual.”

Staff writers Eric Stirgus, Mark Niesse and David Wickert contributed to this article.