President Joe Biden, under pressure from U.S. civil rights leaders, on Tuesday called it a “national imperative” to pass sweeping voting rights legislation that has stalled in Congress, but he did not outline a path to overcome Republican opposition.
Numerous Republican-controlled states have passed new voting restrictions this year, a push encouraged by Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump.
In a passionate speech in a city considered the nation’s birthplace, Biden, without naming him, took aim at Trump and his supporters for false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from the Republican former president through widespread voting fraud.
“So hear me clearly: there’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections,” Biden told a cheering crowd in Philadelphia.
“The Big Lie is just that: a big lie,” Biden said, referring to unfounded election fraud claims by Trump and his allies.
“In America, if you lose you accept the results, you follow the Constitution. You try again. You don’t call facts fake and try to bring down the American experiment just because you’re unhappy. That’s not statesmanship. It’s selfishness,” Biden added.
Republicans must “stand up, for God’s sake,” and oppose voting restrictions, Biden said, adding a challenge: “Have you no shame?”
The voting rights legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress, where Biden’s fellow Democrats have been stymied by Senate Republicans who blocked it even from being debated. Biden’s focus on the subject, even if the legislation fails, enables him to rally Democratic voters as his party works to maintain control of Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
Biden made a searing critique of what he called efforts to undermine voting rights, likening them to past laws that prevented Black people and women from voting in the United States.
“They want to make it so hard … that they hope people don’t vote at all. That’s what this is about,” Biden said of those efforts.
“We must pass the ‘For the People Act.’ It’s a national imperative,” Biden added, referring to the legislation.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, at least 17 states this year have enacted laws that restrict voting access, with more being considered.
Biden’s party and civil rights groups have opposed these restrictions, which critics have said are aimed at Black, Hispanic and younger voters, who have helped elect Democrats. Many Republicans have justified new restrictions as a means to combat voter fraud, a phenomenon that election experts have said is rare in the United States.
Two of the nation’s foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, were signed at Independence Hall, just steps away from the National Constitution Center where Biden made his speech.
Biden did not announce a new position on a Senate custom called the filibuster under which most legislation cannot advance without the support of 60 members of the 100-seat chamber. The Senate is split 50-50 between the parties, with Democrats in control because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
Some advocates want Biden to back an arrangement that would prevent the filibuster from blocking the voting rights bill. Biden, who served in the Senate for decades, has resisted calling for ending the filibuster.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton noted to Reuters after the speech that Biden did not mention the filibuster, and said he had just spoken to the president. “And he said to me just now, ‘Al, we’re still working through where we are going to be on that.’ He’s not committed yet.”
If passed, the Democratic-backed bill would expand opportunities to cast ballots before Election Day, make certain campaign contributions more transparent and change the process for drawing the boundaries of House of Representatives districts. Republicans said the measure violates the authority of states to set their own election laws.
“Joe Biden is the president of the United States, who legitimately got elected,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News.
But he and other Republicans said it was imperative that Republicans reform voting laws.
“You want to make sure that you don’t have fraud involved in elections.”
Biden met last week with civil rights leaders who prodded him to keep fighting for voting rights despite Republican resistance.
In Texas on Monday, more than 50 Democratic legislators left that state in a bid to derail Republican efforts to pass voting restrictions. The Democratic legislators said on Tuesday they plan to stay in Washington as long as needed to derail the state legislation and push for federal voting reform.
Harris told Reuters the Texas lawmakers showed “great courage.” She met with them after Biden’s speech.