PHILADELPHIA — President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that the fight against restrictive voting laws was the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War” and called Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election “a big lie.”
In an impassioned speech in Philadelphia, Biden tried to reinvigorate the stalled Democratic effort to pass federal voting rights legislation and called on Republicans “in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up, for God’s sake.”
“Help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote,” the president said in remarks at the National Constitution Center. “Have you no shame?”
But his words collided with reality: Even as Republican-led bills meant to restrict voting access make their way through statehouses across the country, two bills aiming to expand voting rights nationwide are languishing in Congress. And Biden has bucked increasing pressure from Democrats to support pushing the legislation through the Senate by eliminating the filibuster, no matter the political cost.
In fact, the president seemed to acknowledge that the legislation had little hope of passing as he shifted his focus to the midterm elections.
“We’re going to face another test in 2022,” Biden said. “A new wave of unprecedented voter suppression, and raw and sustained election subversion. We have to prepare now.”
He said he would start an effort “to educate voters about the changing laws, register them to vote and then get the vote out.”
The partisan fight over voting rights was playing out even as the president spoke, with a group of Texas Democrats fleeing their state to deny Republicans the quorum they need to pass new voting restrictions there.
In his speech, Biden characterized the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election — hatched and spread by his predecessor, Trump — as a “darker and more sinister” underbelly of American politics. He did not mention Trump by name but warned that “bullies and merchants of fear” had posed an existential threat to democracy.
“No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny, such high standards,” Biden said. “The big lie is just that: a big lie.”
About a dozen Republican-controlled states passed laws this spring to restrict voting or significantly change election rules, in part because of Trump’s efforts to sow doubt about the 2020 results.
Republicans, who have called Democrats’ warnings about democracy hyperbolic, argue that laws are needed to tamp down on voter fraud, despite evidence that it is not a widespread problem. They have mounted an aggressive campaign to portray Biden’s voting-rights efforts as self-serving federalization of elections to benefit Democrats.
The president’s speech, delivered against the backdrop of the birthplace of American democracy, was intended to present the right to vote as a shared ideal, despite the realities of a deeply fractured political landscape.
Democratic efforts to pass voting rights legislation in Washington have stalled in the evenly divided Senate. Last month, Republicans filibustered the broad elections overhaul known as the For the People Act, and they are expected to do the same if Democrats try to bring up the other measure — the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for a former Georgia congressman and civil rights icon — which would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
In a statement, Danielle Álvarez, the communications director for the Republican National Committee, said that Biden’s speech amounted to “lies and theatrics.” Republicans had unanimously rejected the For the People Act as a Democratic attempt to “pass their federal takeover of our elections,” she said.
There were also concerns among more moderate members of Biden’s party that the legislation was too partisan. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have publicly said they would not support rolling back the filibuster to enact it.
But other Democrats see a worrying increase in efforts by Republican-led state legislatures to restrict voting, along with court rulings that would make it harder to fight encroachments on voting rights.
A Supreme Court ruling this month weakened the one enforcement clause of the Voting Rights Act that remained after the court invalidated its major provision in 2013. Biden said last year that strengthening the act would be one of his first priorities after taking office; but on Tuesday, he sought to shift responsibility to lawmakers.
“The court’s decision, as harmful as it is, does not limit the Congress’ ability to repair the damage done,” the president said. “As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and want the whole world to see it.”
His rallying cry only underscored the impossibility of the task: Neither bill has a path to his desk.
Activists who had wondered whether Biden would stake out a public position on the filibuster got their answer Tuesday: “I’m not filibustering now,” the president told reporters who shouted questions after his speech.
“It was strange to hear,” Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate, said after watching the speech. “He did a great job of laying out the problem, but then stopped short of talking about the actual solution that would be needed to passing legislation to address the problem.”
As Biden spoke in Philadelphia, the group of Texas Democrats had traveled to Washington, where they were trying to delay state lawmakers from taking up restrictive voting measures.
Both measures would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; prohibit election officials from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters who had not requested them; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; limit the types of assistance that can be provided to voters; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.
In Austin, Republicans vented their anger at the fleeing group, and Gov. Greg Abbott vowed to call “special session after special session after special session” until an election bill passed. The handful of Democratic lawmakers who did not go to Washington were rounded up and ordered onto the Statehouse floor. Shawn Thierry, a Democratic state representative from Houston, posted to Twitter a video of a Statehouse sergeant-at-arms and a state trooper entering her office to order her to be locked in the House chamber.
“This is not an issue about Democrats or Republicans,” Vice President Kamala Harris told the Texas lawmakers when she met with them Tuesday. “This is about Americans and how Americans are experiencing this issue.”
James Talarico, 32, the youngest member of the Texas Legislature, said the group of Democrats had gone to Washington, in part, to pressure Biden to do more.
“We can’t listen to more speeches,” Talarico said. “I’m incredibly proud not only as a Democrat but also an American of what President Biden has accomplished in his first few months in office. But protecting our democracy should have been at the very top of the list, because without it none of these issues matter.”
The restrictions in the Texas bills mirror key provisions of a restrictive law passed this year in Georgia, which went even further to assert Republican control over the State Election Board and empower the party to suspend county election officials. In June, the Justice Department sued Georgia over the law, the Biden administration’s first significant move to challenge voter restrictions at the state level.
“The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real,” Biden said as he listed the details of the Texas bills. “It’s unrelenting, and we are going to challenge it vigorously.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.