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Top Biden ally pleads with him to scrap filibuster for election reform

After months of setbacks and gridlock on voting rights, one of President Joe Biden’s top allies in Congress is calling for him to support amending the Senate filibuster.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told POLITICO Biden “should endorse” the idea of creating a carveout to the legislative filibuster in the Senate for legislation that applies to the Constitution. In effect, the reform would make it possible for Democrats to pass their sweeping elections reform bill and another bill reauthorizing key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with just Democratic support.

It’s a sentiment the congressman says he’s shared with White House counselor Steve Ricchetti and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond as well. “I’ve even told that to the vice president,” Clyburn said.

Biden could “pick up the phone and tell [Sen.] Joe Manchin, ‘Hey, we should do a carve out.’” Clyburn said, referring to the centrist West Virginia Democrat who has resisted filibuster reform. “I don’t care whether he does it in a microphone or on the telephone — just do it.”

Clyburn’s comments are the latest attempt by senior Democrats to find a way around Republican opposition to their election reform legislation. Biden himself is set to embark on a more aggressive campaign to try and move public opinion behind those bills. He is headed to Philadelphia on Tuesday to deliver a speech on his administration’s “actions to protect the sacred, constitutional right to vote,” the White House said. His remarks will come days after the president met with the leaders of national civil rights organizations at the White House, who called on Biden to use his voice, influence and power in this moment.

But the president’s ability to directly combat restrictive voting laws being considered or passed by Republican-led states across the country is limited. His party runs an evenly split, 50-50, Senate, and enjoys a slim House majority. Biden himself has so far expressed little desire to change the legislative filibuster to the degree likely needed to pass more of his agenda. Adding to the hurdles are recent Supreme Court rulings that weakened the Justice Department’s ability to sue states for election laws deemed racially discriminatory.

If the two voting rights bills before Congress don’t reach Biden’s desk soon, Clyburn said, “Democrats can kiss the majority goodbye.”

“I can see in a state like Georgia — where people stepped up in January in a way nobody thought they ever would — I can see the disappointment in the voters to the extent that [Sen. Rafael] Warnock would not be back,” he added.

In response to Clyburn’s comments, a White House official noted Biden’s respect and admiration for the congressman and the president’s support for a talking filibuster, which requires a senator or group of senators to physically be on the floor to stall a bill. But Biden has dodged questions about whether he believes filibustered legislation should no longer have to meet a 60-vote threshold to pass.

Anxiety and frustration around the failure to move voting rights legislation are not just building among progressive activists but among civil rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers as well. Democrats who spoke to POLITICO said they believed failure on this front would result not only in electoral losses but would have a tangible impact on the country’s democracy if more Republican-led states pass restrictions on voting access.

Adding to that frustration is the recent Supreme Court decision that delivered another major blow to the Voting Rights Act. Lawyers and civil rights advocates believe the decision will make it harder to bring lawsuits against new election laws passed by Republican-led states that limit access to the ballot.

“I hope that the president gets a little more aggressive,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who could lose his seat if Republicans decide to gerrymander the districts in Kentucky during redistricting. “Obviously they have a very full plate and they’re trying to deal with a lot of things [but] there are many of us who believe that particularly after the Supreme Court decision that we really are at a critical juncture in terms of protecting Democracy.”

Yarmuth added that Democrats have a “deep fear” about “what happens to our democracy period. Not who wins in 2022, what happens to democracy.”

Democrats’ signature election reform bill would expand early voting, ban partisan gerrymandering, among other changes that touch nearly every aspect of the election system. The second bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) would restore key sections of the 1965 landmark Voting Rights Act, which mandated jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination get pre-approval for election law changes from the federal government.

“We have to have a federal legislative fix and we have to figure out politically how we get around the filibuster,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee. In Dean’s home state of Pennsylvania Republican state legislators are now calling for an Arizona-style audit of the 2020 election results.

Dean also said she hopes Biden will endorse a carveout to the filibuster for bills related to election reform.

“I hope the President will do that — as I said I think the filibuster should be removed unless it was actually used for debate that furthers conversation about things,” said Dean. “But I hope the president will lead on this.”

A White House official said Biden is actively pushing for the two pieces of legislation and has deployed multiple agencies, the White House legislative team, and senior staff to lobby for passage. On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced the Democratic National Committee would invest $25 million to register, educate and turn out voters.

On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki cited the Justice Department’s recent action to increase funding and personnel for its Civil Rights Division and Biden’s decision to nominate “two civil rights activists” to prominent roles at the DOJ as evidence of the administration’s dedication to the issue.

Psaki said Biden’s speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday will not be about the legislative process but a “moral obligation” to defend the right to vote.

But to many Democrats on and off the Hill, the entire ballgame is the legislative process.

“If he is serious about voting rights being passed, then he has got to support at least modifying the filibuster,” said Cliff Allbright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group that helped mobilize voters in Georgia and across the southern states in 2020. “If he’s not willing to support that … he just needs to not tweet anymore about voting rights — just shut up.”

There are only two ways Democrats get the voting bills passed, said Rep. Clyburn: Either Manchin finds 10 Republicans to support a revised elections bill and the Lewis bill, or Democrats get rid of the filibuster.

Clyburn said he held a one-on-one meeting with Manchin and their staff around the time that Manchin was crafting changes to Democrats’ election reform bill. Clyburn told him “I’m not asking you to eliminate the filibuster. … But what I’m saying to you is that nobody ought to have the right to filibuster my constitutional rights.”

In the absence of an embrace of filibuster reform, Democrats said they hoped to see more hardball legislative tactics and political arm-twisting by Biden to move the election bills forward.

“This is an existential crisis for democracy and the party that is defending democracy,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

“When you read Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, you see how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed without his direct personal muscular intervention with particular recalcitrant Democratic senators,” Raskin said. “That is the historical template for getting this thing done. And as a longtime senator, and student of the Senate, I am sure that this analogy is in Joe Biden’s mind.”

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