President Joe Biden declared preserving voting rights an urgent national “test of our time” on Tuesday but offered few concrete proposals to meet it. Texas Democrats took their own dramatic action to stymie Republican efforts to tighten ballot restrictions in their state.
Biden, who has proclaimed protecting ballot access the central cause of his presidency, has faced sharp criticism from allies for not doing more, though political headwinds and stubborn Senate math have limited his ability to act. Despite his ringing words Tuesday, he avoided any mention of trying to alter the Senate filibuster rule that stands in the path of federal legislation.
Speaking at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden called state efforts to curtail voting accessibility “un-American” and “un-democratic” and launched a broadside against his predecessor, Donald Trump, who baselessly alleged misconduct in the 2020 election after his defeat. Biden called passage of congressional proposals to override new state voting restrictions and to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were curbed in recent years by the Supreme Court “a national imperative.”
Yet, instead of raising the possibility of fighting the filibuster, he appeared to tacitly acknowledge the fading hopes for the bills, saying he would launch a nationwide campaign to arm voters with information on rule changes and restrictions ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Joe Biden blasts ‘un-American’ voting limits; Texas Dems act
“We have to prepare now,” the president said.
Biden’s sharp rhetoric drew praise from progressive groups in his party but did little to assuage the mounting pressure on him to throw his weight behind replacing the filibuster. “The president believes that we have to make the filibuster work the way it used to,” said White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who added Biden has not changed his opposition to eliminating it altogether.
Biden’s remarks came a day after Texas Democrats decamped for Washington in an effort to deny their GOP-controlled Legislature the necessary quorum to pass a bill placing new restrictions on voting in the state.
The lawmakers, who arrived in the nation’s capital Monday night, said they were prepared to stay in Washington — out of the reach of Texas law enforcement — until a special legislative session concludes early next month. Their action marks a dramatic new showdown over voting in America.
Standing near the steps of the U.S. Capitol for a news conference ahead of a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democrats promised to “stay out and kill this bill.”
However, state Rep. Chris Turner, the leader of the Texas Legislature’s House Democrats, said their efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of the sweeping federal voting bill. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create national standards for voting that could roll back some of the restrictions that have been approved or are advancing in Republican-led states, including Texas.
“We can’t hold this tide back forever. We’re buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely,” Turner said.
Several states have enacted new voting restrictions, and others are debating them, as the GOP has seized on Trump’s false claim of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election as a rationale for curtailing ballot access.
“No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny, such high standards,” Biden said of the 2020 race.
Some GOP-led states have worked to roll back the vote-by-mail expansion that was put in place in the past presidential election due to COVID-19 fears. Others have tried to strengthen voter identification requirements and curtail hours and locations for early voting and ballot drop-offs.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he would keep calling special sessions through next year if necessary to pass his state’s legislation, and raised the possibility of Democrats facing arrest upon returning home.
Asked whether Biden thinks the Texas legislators are doing the right thing by leaving the state, Jean-Pierre said “he applauds their courage.” She said that in the administration’s view, the Texas bill is an “assault on democracy.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is leading the administration’s efforts on voting rights, praised the Texas legislators during a meeting with them in Washington.
“Defending the right of the American people to vote is as American as apple pie,” she told the lawmakers, comparing their actions to women’s suffrage and civil rights marches.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have tried to respond with a sweeping federal voting and elections bill that Senate Republicans have united to block. Most Republicans have similarly dismissed a separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court has weakened.
Those roadblocks have increased focus on Senate filibuster rules, which, if left in place, would seem to provide an insurmountable roadblock, requiring 60 votes in the evenly split, 100-member chamber to even bring up controversial legislation.
Moderate Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona also have so far expressed reluctance to changing the Senate rules.
Many Democrats have expressed frustration with the lack of a greater White House push to change the filibuster, with civil rights activists stressing that Biden was elected with broad support from Black people whose votes are often put at risk by voting restrictions.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended Biden’s address, called it a “good speech,” but also said, “I told him that I was going to stay on him about the filibuster.” He described Biden as noncommittal on the issue.
Biden, himself a veteran of the Senate, has offered some support for filibuster changes. But he has not put his full political weight behind the issue, believing it counterproductive in both the legislative and political fights over voting. He and Harris met last week with some of the civil rights leaders, who made clear that they expected a legislative solution.
“Our backs are against the wall. This is the moment. We have no more time,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, after the meeting. “I told the president: We will not be able to litigate our way out of this threat to Black citizenship.”
“Administrative action, litigation, and organizing are critical to combat this, but these tactics are not a substitute for congressional action on the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the group Common Cause, said Tuesday. “As the president ramps up his use of the bully pulpit and engages with senators, we urge him to make clear that the Senate minority’s use of the filibuster—a Jim Crow relic, in the words of former President Obama—must never stand in the way of the freedom to vote.”
Although not abandoning hope of legislative action, the West Wing has been shifting focus to other measures to protect voting, including legal remedies pursued by the Justice Department and action in individual states, according to officials. There also will be an emphasis on boosting voter turnout, with aides pointing to success Democrats had in getting out votes last year during the height of the pandemic.
Officials concede, though, that turning out voters is always harder in a nonpresidential election year.
Texas Democrats dig in after exodus; GOP threatens arrest
Texas Democrats who hurriedly fled to Washington to block sweeping new election laws back home acknowledged Tuesday they can't stay away forever and urged Congress to act on voting rights, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened them with arrest the moment they return.
As Democrats gathered at the U.S. Capitol, Republicans in the unusually skeletal Texas House of Representatives authorized finding and bringing back more than 50 lawmakers "under warrant of arrest if necessary." However, state troopers have no jurisdiction beyond Texas, making it unclear what if any actions would immediately be taken. A House Democrat who stayed behind said it was his understanding was that officers would search for his absent colleagues in Texas, even if it's known they're in Washington.
Abbott has already threatened Democrats with arrest once they come back home, which may not be until the current 30-day special session ends in August. Though that would successfully stymie the GOP's current effort, Abbott has vowed to keep trying until the 2022 elections if necessary.
In Washington, the Democrats pressured President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level while rejecting the idea of returning to Texas anytime soon, promising to "stay out and kill this bill."
State Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic leader, predicted their efforts would ultimately be futile unless congressional Democrats take bolder action to overcome a Senate Republican blockade of their sweeping voting bill. The legislation, known as the For the People Act, would create national standards for voting that could roll back some restrictions that have been approved or are advancing in the Republican-led states, including Texas.
"We can't hold this tide back forever. We're buying some time. We need Congress and all of our federal leaders to use that time wisely," he said.
The move by Republicans was expected after most Texas House Democrats boarded private planes Monday to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to conduct business — namely, passing one of America's most restrictive voting measures. Other lighting-rod conservative issues that Abbott put on the agenda — including how race is taught in schools and new abortion restrictions — were also shelved with the Legislature now at a standstill.
"A sergeant-at-arms and any officers appointed by him are directed to send for all absentees whose attendance is not excused, for the purpose of securing and maintaining their attendance, by warrant of arrest if necessary," Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said.
Shortly after the vote, sergeant-at-arms in the House locked the chamber doors. Four Democrats who did not flee to Washington were among the lawmakers still inside, while the voting mechanisms on the desks of absent Democrats were locked.
A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees state troopers and the Texas Rangers, did not comment after the remaining House members approved the measure 76-4.
State Rep. Eddie Morales, one of four Democrats who stayed behind, said it his understanding that troopers would not leave Texas.
"I was told they will go to your home back in your district, they will go to your place of work, they will got to your apartment in Austin or wherever you live close by when you're in session. And also family and friends that they may know of," he said.
Despite the exodus by Democrats, Abbott has said Republicans will not be deterred.
"As soon as they come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done," Abbott told Austin television station KVUE.
The cross-country exodus was the second time that Democratic lawmakers have staged a walkout over the voting overhaul, a measure of their fierce opposition to proposals they say will make it harder for young people, people of color and people with disabilities to vote. Like last month's effort, there remains no clear path for Democrats to permanently block the voting measures.
Biden was set to deliver a major address on the issue Tuesday in Philadelphia, after facing growing criticism for taking what some on the left call too passive a role in the fight.
The Texas legislation would outlaw 24-hour polling places, ban drop boxes for mail ballots and empower partisan poll watchers. Republicans say the measures are needed to fight fraud. Democrats counter that fraud is very rare and the bills target their supporters.
The measures are part of the GOP's rush to enact new voting restrictions in response to former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. More than a dozen states this year have already passed tougher election laws — but only in Texas have Democrats put up this kind of fight.
The state has a history of attention-getting political tactics. Texas Democrats, shut out of power in the state Capitol for decades, last fled the state in 2003 to thwart a redistricting plan. That year, troopers went to Ardmore, Oklahoma, and asked them to come home on a plane sent by the then-Republican House speaker. But they were unable to arrest the lawmakers without a warrant issued by Oklahoma authorities, and the lawmakers refused the troopers' request.
Democrats ultimately lost that fight, with the GOP passing new voting maps.