EXCLUSIVE: While passing the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act was a long shot, President Biden and allies refuse to give up on voting rights reform.
President Joe Biden defended his commitment to Black voters when pressed about his handling and timing on the issue of voting rights passage during a televised press conference with the White House press corps on Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
“I had their backs. I’ve never not had their backs,” said Biden, who was asked about criticisms and frustrations from Black Americans who feel his administration handled a growing wave of nationwide voter suppression with a lack of urgency.
Instead, some have argued, President Biden prioritized other national issues like infrastructure investment and a comprehensive social spending plan that failed in Congress after months of pushing for its passage.
The president’s press conference happened just hours before the U.S. Senate ultimately voted against the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act on Wednesday night. After debating the bill for two consecutive days in a long shot bid to advance the voting rights legislation, Republicans tanked the bill. Soon after, two members of the Democrats’ own party refused to change Senate rules in order to overcome Republican opposition and pass the bill with a simple majority.
“We have not run out of options yet,” Biden said while standing at the podium in the East Room on the eve of the anniversary of his first year in office as the 46th president of the United States.
In a statement responding to the failed John Lewis legislation late Wednesday night, the president said “I am disappointed — but I am not deterred.”
He added, “My Administration will never stop fighting to ensure that the heart and soul of our democracy — the right to vote — is protected at all costs.”
The new Democratic bill was meant to supplement what the United States Supreme Court gutted from The Voting Rights Act of 1965, leaving Americans – particularly Black and Brown Americans – without the full voting protections of the landmark law.
A pivotal piece of that law guaranteed protections against voter discrimination and suppression. Known as “pre-clearance,” Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required that any new voting law in southern states with a history of suppressing Black and minority access to the ballot be approved by the federal government. Thanks to rulings from the high court, Section 5 and Section 2 are essentially moot.
In his speech on Wednesday, President Biden lamented that the road to voting rights reform may be an arduous one.
“It’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that. It’s going to be difficult, but we’re not there yet. We’ve not run out of options yet. And we will see how this moves,” he said.
During and after the press conference on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Senators debated for hours on Capitol Hill ahead of a vote on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. Vice President Kamala Harris also appeared on the Senate floor to preside in her official capacity as Senate president.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harrus departs the Senate Chambers after presiding over a procedural vote on ending the voting rights legislation debate process at the U.S. Capitol Building January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
“We are not giving up,” Harris said to the press after the failed vote. “We will not give up.”
U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey fiercely responded on the Senate floor to Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and other Republicans who not only opposed the newly proposed voting rights law, but chastised Democrats who compared their opposition to the days of Jim Crow.
“Don’t lecture me about Jim Crow. I know this is not 1965. That’s what makes me so outraged. It’s 2022, and they’re blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented,” Booker remarked. “I’m not making that up. That is a fact.”
Democrats have not been able to overcome the needed 60-vote threshold to pass voting rights legislation. Fifty Republicans are a no vote, and two Senate Democrats – Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – are unwilling to support a rule change to the filibuster that would allow Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority vote despite being in support of the legislation itself.
In recent weeks, Democrats and activists have tried to tie the fight to restore voting rights to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That strategy so far has not convinced Sinema, Manchin, or Republicans to change their stance.
President Biden at the press conference said he is hopeful that the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act will adequately address what Democrats and activists have slammed as voter suppression bills being passed into law by Republicans in states across the country.
“I think there are a number of things we can do, but I also think we will be able to get significant pieces of legislation if we don’t get it all now,” the president said.
Though there is public skepticism they will ever be able to overcome roadblocks from 50 Republican senators and two members of their own party, Democrats are not giving up hope.
Outgoing U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois told theGrio, “Anti-democratic forces are trying to control the Black vote [and] we will never allow that to happen.”
Veteran Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush listens during testimony at a July House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy hearing titled “Oversight of DOE During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” (Photo: Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)
The 75-year-old former Black Panther added, “We have always been able to overcome the odds and that which is against us. Even if the John Lewis voting rights bill is not passed, I still think we’re going to use this power to vote … We are always going to be fighting for freedom, justice and equality because that’s who we are. That’s our condition.”
Meanwhile on the ground, activists are continuing to push for the White House and Congress to do whatever is needed to pass voting rights. They feel the fight is not yet over as there are still several months before the midterm elections and a potential “red” wave of Republican electoral wins.
”We’re saying that it is not right what is happening to this nation. We’re saying that we’re willing to be arrested,” LaTosha Brown, activist and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told theGrio.
Co-founder Black Voters Matter LaTosha Brown speaks as other voting rights activists listen during a “Rally for D.C. Statehood,” the last stop of BVM’s “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” bus tour, at the National Mall June 26, 2021 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Brown, along with other voting rights organizers in Georgia, played a crucial role in the 2020 election that saw a high turnout of Black and Brown voters who elected Biden and handed Democrats their slim majority in the Senate.
She and other demonstrators were arrested on Tuesday while protesting at the Capitol for passage of the stalled voting rights bill.
“That’s not a good experience. That’s not something that we wake up and just want to do every day because we don’t have other things to do. We’re doing it because we believe in this moment,” said Brown.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, has challenged the idea that apathy among Black voters will be the consequence of the missed opportunity to pass this historic legislation into law.
Standing with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) speaks to reporters about voting rights outside of the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The blame game and finger pointing is underway amid the battle over voting rights from Capitol Hill to the White House. Senior advisor to President Biden, Cedric Richmond, in an interview with theGrio laid the blame directly on the shoulders of former president Donald Trump and his influence over Republican lawmakers, swaying them not to support efforts to protect the right to vote.
The Republican Party’s opposition to the John Lewis bill is a departure from history as they overwhelmingly supported reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2006 when then Republican President George W. Bush signed it into law.
Despite the quagmire on voting rights in Washington, lawmakers and stakeholders show no signs of giving up.
“Yes, we want this to happen expeditiously, but we also recognize that the goal for us was not necessarily like it has to happen on this particular day, but that it has to happen as soon as possible,” said Latosha Brown.
“We have to continue. What we are very convinced of is that when the people step up and demand that this happens, it is going to happen.”
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