(ATLANTA) — With less than 10 months until the 2022 midterm elections, President Joe Biden headed to Georgia on Tuesday to make his biggest push yet for national voting rights bills and called for changes to the Senate filibuster rule in order to get them passed.
“We have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” Biden said.
Recalling the “violent mob” that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Biden characterized the attack, for the first time publicly, as an “attempted coup.”
“That’s why we’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup — a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people by sowing doubt and vending charges of fraud, seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people,” he said.
“Hear me plainly,” Biden told the group gathered in Atlanta. “The battle for the soul of America is not over.”
“We must make sure Jan. 6 marks not the end of democracy but the renaissance for our democracy,” he continued.
The president called out congressional Republicans, he said, for turning the will of the voters into a “mere suggestion” in the case of the 2020 presidential election.
Biden spoke Tuesday alongside Vice President Kamala Harris from the grounds of Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.
“We will fight to secure our most fundamental freedom — the freedom to vote,” Harris said, opening for the president. “And that is why we have come to Atlanta today — to the cradle of the Civil Rights movement, to the district that was represented by the great Congressman John Lewis, on the eve of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Harris blasted Senate Republicans over what she characterized as exploiting “acane” Senate rules — in an apparent nod to the filibuster — to block Democrats’ election reform bills.
“We will fight to safeguard our democracy,” she added.
To that end, Biden announced he supported changing the Senate rules surrounding the filibuster in “whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”
Echoing his impassioned address on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection when he blamed former President Donald Trump and his supporters for holding a “dagger at the throat of democracy,” Biden’s remarks in Atlanta were expected to be a “forceful” call to action to protect voting rights.
“The president will forcefully advocate for protecting the most bedrock American rights: the right to vote and have your voice counted in a free, fair and secure election that is not tainted … by partisan manipulation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed in her press briefing Tuesday.
“He’ll make clear in the former district of the late Congressman John Lewis, that the only way to do that are (sic) for the Senate to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
In excerpts of the speech released Tuesday morning, the White House said Biden would pressure the Senate to act.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice?” he was expected to say. “I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of United States Senate stand?”
As he left the White House Tuesday morning, Biden told reporters asking about the political risk he’s taking given the Senate uncertainty, “I risk not saying what I believe. That’s what I risk. This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are gonna be judged – where were they before and where were they after the vote. History is going to judge us, it’s that consequential. And so the risk is making sure people understand just how important this is just so important.”
Georgia is one of 19 states that have passed new restrictive voting laws since the 2020 election. There have been 34 such new laws in total across the country, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, and most of them in states controlled by Republicans.
Many of the new laws, fueled by false claims of widespread election fraud by the former president, take aim at mail-in voting, implement stricter voter ID requirements, allow fewer early voting days and limit ballot drop boxes.
The Brennan Center calculates that 13 more restrictive laws are in the works, including one in Georgia that would ban the use of ballot boxes altogether.
But Tuesday’s trip has been met with criticism from some voting groups that warned in a statement to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal that “anything less” than a finalized plan to pass voting rights in the House and Senate is insufficient and unwelcome.”
On Monday afternoon, The Asian American Advocacy Fund, Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council, Black Voters Matter Fund, GALEO Impact Fund and New Georgia Project Action Fund all said they won’t be attending the event and asked Biden and Harris to stay in Washington.
“We don’t need another speech,” said Cliff Albright, executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “What we need is action – what we need is a plan.”
Notably, also not attending Biden’s speech is Stacey Abrams, the Georgia voting rights activist.
Biden said he spoke with her Tuesday morning and blamed it on a scheduling issue.
“I spoke with Stacey this morning. We have a great relationship. We got our scheduling mixed up. I talked to her at length this morning. We’re all on the same page and everything is fine.”
Biden’s speech will be the third he has delivered focused on the issue of voting rights. It comes after the president signaled in an interview with ABC “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir that he would be open to making a one-time Senate rule change to the filibuster that would allow a simple majority to pass new voting laws.
Psaki said the president would also directly address the issue of the filibuster.
“The president has spoken to this issue a number of times, as I’ve said before, including as recently as December where he said that, ‘if that is how we get this done, I’m open to that,"” Psaki said.
The president’s message, according to Psaki, will include a call to “ensure January 6 doesn’t mark the end of democracy, but the beginning of a renaissance for our democracy, where we stand up for the right to vote and have that vote counted fairly, not undermined by partisans.”
In her briefing, Psaki pushed back on criticism of the president, stressing that the speech Tuesday is focused on moving forward.
“We understand the frustration by many advocates that this is not passed into law yet. He would love to have signed this into law himself. But tomorrow’s an opportunity to speak about what the path forward looks like to advocate for – for this moving forward in the Senate.”
While Biden has signaled his openness to passing voting rights with a carveout to the filibuster, he would still need the support of all 50 Democratic senators to do so — which could prove challenging with holdout Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
“Look, I think that everyone is going to have to take a hard look at where they want to be at this moment in history as we’re looking at efforts across the country to to prevent people from being able to exercise their fundamental rights,” Psaki said when asked about Sinema’s opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised a vote on voting rights legislation soon and warned that if Republicans filibuster the effort, he will force another vote by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The White House has insisted Biden will “work in lockstep” with Schumer to move a vote forward but are taking it “day by day.”
Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the proposed federal voting laws as what they deem a government overreach. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Democrats are promoting a “fake narrative,” “fake outrage” and “fake hysteria” on voting rights “ginned up by partisans.”
Harris was tasked in June by the president to lead the administration’s efforts on voting rights reforms. Psaki said the vice president has worked to “help build a groundswell of support” and has been meeting with a number of advocates on the issue.
ABC News’ Meg Cunningham contributed to this report.
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