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‘We are going right to the belly of the beast’: Biden takes on Georgia

Fresh off a high-profile speech in which he warned that a dagger had been placed at the throat of American democracy, President Joe Biden will travel to the state that White House officials view as “ground zero” for Republican-led election suppression efforts.

Biden will speak in Georgia on Tuesday. In his remarks, he is expected to not only echo the themes of his address on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection but to expand on his endorsement of a filibuster carveout to pass voting rights legislation in the Senate.

The speeches and related meetings from Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are part of the administration’s offensive to beat back GOP efforts to both restrict voting access and seed skepticism of America’s electoral system.

“We are doubling down, kicking it into another gear, we are going right to the belly of the beast, or ground zero, for voter suppression, voter subversion and obstruction,” said Cedric Richmond, White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement.

Biden’s trip comes as Senate Democrats are readying a push to debate and vote on changes to the chamber’s rules in the hopes of advancing voting rights and elections legislation. In his speech, aides said, Biden is expected to unequivocally back that effort, expanding on his ABC News interview over the holiday break in which he endorsed a carveout to the filibuster for voting rights legislation.

“It’s really about the fact that there’s a vote coming up,” said Richmond. “The Senate leader has voiced his plan. We supported his plan, and we’re going to use the White House to try to galvanize the votes.”

Despite the renewed push by the White House, major hurdles remain in the form of Senate Democrats not yet willing to make changes to the filibuster rules. Richmond said that Biden continues to talk to lawmakers one-on-one and with the group of senators spearheading talk of how to get the voting and elections reform bills passed. “He’s been working the phones on voting rights,” he added.

Biden’s trip to Atlanta comes as voting rights advocates and allied lawmakers have called on him to be more forceful and consistent.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said he hopes that both Biden and Harris will “speak emphatically about the need for filibuster reform” and has made his desire known to the White House. Johnson did not ask the White House for any reassurances, but said he expects Biden to be direct in his comments about the need to change the filibuster.

Biden’s speech on the anniversary of Jan. 6, “didn’t pull any punches,” Johnson said. “And I look forward to him doing the same thing on filibuster reform, being just as direct and straightforward and clear in his speech in Atlanta next week, as he was in speaking about the insurrection…and who was who was responsible for it.”

In his address on at the Capitol this week, Biden began to lay out his case for the dire need to save a democracy under threat by Trump and GOP allies as they perpetuate lies of election fraud and attempt to install loyalists — some of whom have pledged to question future certifications — into key positions of power overseeing elections.

Richmond said Biden’s address on Jan. 6 was a “down payment” as the president builds the case to the public that the foundations of the country’s democracy are under assault.

It’s not the first time Biden has called for Congress to pass such legislation. Last June, he traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma on the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre and vowed to “fight like heck” against voting restrictions being passed by GOP-led state legislatures. A month later, he gave an address at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia declaring, “the 21st century Jim Crow assault is real.”

But despite the repeated pushes, the Senate has not been able to move either the Freedom to Vote Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — the first of which expands access to the ballot and shields election officials; the second restores key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Each time when it doesn’t happen we amplify it more,” Richmond said of pushing for action in the Senate.

As Biden’s other top agenda item — a massive social spending and climate bill — has stalled out, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said the legislative “vacuum is quickly being filled” by voting rights.

“I don’t think there is a Democrat in the country that wanted Build Back Better to pass by Christmas more than I did,” Casey said. “But the primacy of voting rights now has to supersede everything else we do. I think we found out toward the end of the year that it’s very difficult to have two parallel tracks to two big issues. And sometimes you have to prioritize and you have to sequence.”

Casey described the next push for voting and elections bills “as important a body of work as any of us will ever do.”

With Democrats preparing to take up the bills in earnest, Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed openness to changing the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which establishes the process for the certification of presidential elections. Democrats, including the White House, deemed that narrower focus to be wholly insufficient and an attempt to distract from more comprehensive reforms. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says he will support some changes to Senate rules, but not elimination or carve outs of the legislative filibuster. Manchin, along with other centrist hold-out Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), is also holding talks with a bipartisan group of senators on options for fortifying the Electoral Count Act.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a White House confidant and the third-ranking House Democrat, took offense to Manchin’s argument that changes to Senate rules should be bipartisan, saying “we just don’t have enough Democrats who are in touch with the history of this country, or they’d stop saying some of this foolishness.”

“I am, as you know, a Black person, descended of people who were given the vote by the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The 15th amendment was not a bipartisan vote, it was a single party vote that gave Black people the right to vote,” said Clyburn. “Manchin and others need to stop saying that because that gives me great pain for somebody to imply that the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution is not legitimate because it did not have bipartisan buy-in.”

Asked about the desire by some Democrats like Manchin and Sinema to get support from across the aisle, Richmond said it would be unrealistic to expect Republicans to come along when they’ve voted against the bills to date.

“These bills being passed in all of these Republican legislatures to restrict the right to vote, to put obstacles in the way of the right to vote to subvert the vote, all of those have been done on a partisan basis with Republican-only votes,” Richmond said. “And so to think that that same party that is doing that on a partisan basis would come along in the Congress and vote to safeguard from them, may not be realistic.”

Manchin’s office said the senator is in favor of voting rights. “Senator Manchin believes strongly that every American citizen of legal age has not only the right but also the responsibility to vote and that right must be protected by law. He continues to work on legislation to protect this right,” said a Manchin spokesperson.

For Georgia Democrats, the debate around the passage of election reforms is particularly acute as Republicans in the state have ushered in a host of changes. The remade political landscape — twin Senate victories last year a day before the Capitol insurrection in Washington that breathed new life into Biden’s agenda — has combined to raise the stakes.

Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), who has been in touch with the White House ahead of the visit, said she expects Biden to provide specifics about how he plans to move the issue forward.

“I think coming to Atlanta, coming to the 5th Congressional District, I am sitting in the seat that was once held by Congressman John Lewis,” Williams said. “We’re the cradle of the civil rights movement. You don’t come to Atlanta just for another speech. This is about action.”

It couldn’t come soon enough for Democrats in her state. Most notably, a 2021 Georgia law backed by the GOP and signed after Biden’s victory, among other things, curbs absentee voting drop boxes to early voting sites, requires additional ID for absentee voting and allows state takeovers of county elections.

Now, GOP lawmakers in Georgia are pushing to go even further, with proposals to nix voting touchscreen machines and expand probes into voter fraud, among other bills being offered for the coming legislative session.

Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.), noted that her own races have been deeply impacted by GOP-led changes to the voting rolls. In 2018, one-third of the absentee ballots thrown out in the state were in Gwinnett County, the suburban county northeast of Atlanta where her district is based. Bourdeaux brought litigation around the issues that eventually contributed to statewide legal challenges, in addition to devoting a plank of her campaign to voter protection.

Asked what she wants to hear from Biden on Tuesday, Bourdeaux said the president should commit to creating a carve out in the filibuster to get the Freedom to Vote Act on and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act advanced. And she argued it would take nothing short of a full push from Biden himself to make that happen.

“The president has a lot of levers. And I think him coming out very strongly for that is a very important first step,” Bourdeaux said. “But beyond that, he’s the one who’s going to have to lean on the senators to break the filibuster in this way. Step one is making a very strong commitment to that action.”

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