“I’m tired of being quiet!” President Joe Biden told a crowd at Atlanta University Center, which unites the city’s four historically Black universities, on Tuesday afternoon, in a speech that was supposed to represent Democrats’ new push for federal voting rights legislation. It raised the question: Who’s been keeping him quiet on voting rights?
In the face of a rebellion by the leaders of four powerful Georgia voting rights groups who decided to skip his visit, deriding his relative inaction to this point, Biden gave his feistiest speech yet on the topic. (Relatedly—he’s actually given only two, with one in Philadelphia last July, though he’s referenced the issue at other times.) For the first time publicly, he thoroughly denounced the Senate’s filibuster rules. “Today, I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules—whichever way they need to be changed—to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”
And while he didn’t mention the two Democratic senators who resist changing those rules, by name, he subtly shamed West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema nonetheless.
“Every Democrat, independent, and Republican will have to declare where they stand,” he said, adding, “History has never been kind to those who side with voter suppression over voting rights.” Later in the speech, he turned up the rhetorical heat: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? The side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
But now what? I think Manchin and Sinema are shameless. It will be progress to force them to vote against changing the Senate rules, as Biden is now suggesting, that would stymie any voting rights bill. They should be forced to make clear where they stand: On the side of King, Lewis, and Lincoln, or those who throughout the mid-20th century used the filibuster to block voting rights and civil rights legislation?
Manchin and Sinema like to play dumb about that history (maybe I’m giving them credit by saying they’re playing dumb). On Monday night, the West Virginia obstructionist falsely declared the filibuster to be “the tradition of the Senate here for 232 years now…we need to be very cautious what we do…. That’s what we’ve always had for 232 years. That’s what makes us different than any place else in the world.” The problem is, that’s not true. There is no filibuster in the Constitution; it was created in the mid-1800s, rarely used up until the mid-20th-century battle over racial equality, and its rules have been changed many, many times. Sinema has made similar false claims about the filibuster’s history. Can they be shamed out of their (perhaps willful) ignorance? I doubt it, but it’s worth a try.
To be fair to Biden, when he made his remark about being “tired of being quiet,” he had just finished talking about having “quiet conversations” with those who are reluctant to change Senate rules. He hasn’t been sitting on his thumbs. But the lack of public effort mattered.
Had Biden given this speech in place of the one he gave last July, and in Atlanta rather than in Philadelphia, things might be different right now. At the very least, Georgia voting rights advocates, who worked to deliver not only Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to the White House but also the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate, would probably be feeling less aggrieved, enabling a united front. (And voting rights champion Stacey Abrams, running for Georgia governor a second time, might have found a way to resolve her “scheduling conflict” to join Biden and Harris in Atlanta. Or maybe not: Her campaign just released a statement from her praising Biden’s speech and revealing that they spoke by phone Tuesday morning.)
The New Georgia Project Action Fund, founded by Abrams and now run by Nsé Ufot, praised Biden’s speech, but with major reservations. “Today [Biden] took the first step in heeding the call from Georgia organizers, and we commend him for stating his support for changing Senate rules and getting rid of the filibuster to pass federal voting rights legislation. But let’s be clear… a goal without a plan is just a wish.”
It’s not clear that any plan could turn around Manchin and Sinema. But it would have been nice to see more public effort before today.