Joe Biden
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US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Joe Biden gambles big on ‘nuclear option’ in US voting rights fight

  • The president called for a change to Senate filibuster rules so Democrats can push through reforms he says are crucial to saving American democracy
  • Republicans will see such a move as a declaration of war. And to even get to that point, Biden first needs the support of sceptical lawmakers from his own party
Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden took a major political gamble Tuesday in calling for an end to the Senate’s supermajority rule so that Democrats can override Republican opposition to voting rights reforms that he called crucial to saving US democracy.

Speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, the cradle of the civil rights movement, Biden – who declared the Capitol riot by supporters of Donald Trump last year an “attempted coup” – declared “this is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy”.

He challenged Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the Senate to stand up for two bills that would expand access to polls and prevent practices that Biden said are being used to suppress black and other Democratic-leaning voters.

“Each one of the members of the Senate will be judged by history for where they stood before the vote and after the vote. There’s no escape,” Biden said.

People wave to US President Joe Biden after his speech on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

The 50 Democrats in the Senate support the two bills – but under current rules 60 votes are needed to get them passed.

Urging his party to “find a way” Biden said that if Republicans do not cooperate then the supermajority rule, called the filibuster, should be tossed out.

“I support changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed,” he said, “including getting rid of the filibuster.”

It’s a high-risk, high-gain issue for Biden, who is infuriating Republicans, while also trying to balance the more conservative wing of his party with the increasingly frustrated Black community.

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Coming off a powerful speech last week to mark the January 6 anniversary of an attempt by Trump’s supporters to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Biden described the push to enshrine greater voter protections as “a turning point”.

Following Trump’s bid to reverse his election defeat in 2020, Republicans in state legislatures had passed local laws “designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections”, he said.

Throwing down the gauntlet to the Senate, Biden said: “History has never been kind to those who sided with voter suppression over voter rights.”

“I ask every elected official in America: how do you want to be remembered?”


One year after US Capitol attack, Biden addresses the state of American democracy

One year after US Capitol attack, Biden addresses the state of American democracy

Democrats accuse Republican state legislatures of enacting a spate of local laws deliberately restricting the voting rights of minorities and curtailing early voting and mail-in voting in an effort to suppress Democratic support.

However, Republicans describe the Democrats’ Senate push as an attempt to manipulate the election landscape by switching power to federal authorities. They are unanimous in opposing the two bills, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said could come up for a vote as early as Wednesday.

To break that impasse, Biden is endorsing a rarely used manoeuvre circumventing the filibuster just for this vote. This would let Democrats pass the two voting rights laws without any Republican support.

The problem for Biden is that this so-called “nuclear option” is seen as a declaration of war by Republicans, who warn it will open the floodgates to lifting the filibuster on all sorts of issues and end any semblance of bipartisanship in the chamber.

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Perhaps worse for Biden, the manoeuvre needs unanimous Democratic support to happen – and that is far from assured, with at least two of the more conservative Democratic senators clearly sceptical.

If circumventing the filibuster fails, Biden will not only see the voting rights bills defeated but emerge from the fight looking politically weakened.

The president travelled to Georgia at a time when his approval ratings are stuck in the low 40s and Republicans are predicted to take over Congress in November midterm elections.

He not only faces ferocious resistance from Republicans on his voter rights initiative, but complaints from black activists – a crucial part of his coalition – that he has done too little, too late.

US politician Stacey Abrams speaks to Biden supporters in Atlanta in November 2020. The Georgia activist missed the president’s Tuesday event because of a “scheduling glitch”. Photo: AP,

Underlining Biden’s shaky political standing, prominent black politician and Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams missed his Atlanta event due to what Biden called a “scheduling” glitch, while a big civil rights group said it was boycotting due to lack of tangible progress.

Still, the speech was the boldest step yet into the issue by Biden, who attended a wreath laying at the crypt of slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jnr and visited the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church ahead of his speech.

“Keep the faith,” Biden said as he entered the Ebenezer Baptist church.