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Obama backs Biden’s push to change filibuster rules for voting rights legislation

Former president Barack Obama spoke during a memorial service for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at the Smith Center in Las Vegas on Jan. 8, 2022.John Locher/Associated Press

Former president Barack Obama forcefully argued for ending the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation in an op-ed Wednesday night, invoking the memory of late civil rights icon John Lewis and throwing his support behind a controversial strategy that has roiled Washington this week.

“Our democracy isn’t a given,” Obama wrote, adding that laws passed throughout the country aimed at making voting harder around the time Lewis died were an “attack on everything” he fought for during his time as an elected official.

“Since then, things have only gotten worse,” he added.

Obama went on to describe the amplification of baseless election fraud claims by members of the Republican Party following the insurrection at the Capitol, the introduction of votes in 49 states aimed at suppressing votes and disenfranchising voters, attempts to gerrymander congressional districts, and the efforts of state legislatures to “to assert power over core election processes.”

“These partisan attempts at voter nullification are unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times, and they represent a profound threat to the basic democratic principle that all votes should be counted fairly and objectively,” Obama wrote.

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In light of the lack of support from Senate Republicans to pass bills that would “protect the right to vote, end partisan gerrymandering, and restore crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act,” Obama wrote that he was giving his full support to Biden to modify Senate rules as necessary. He added that the filibuster has “no basis in the Constitution.”

“Now is the time for all of us to follow John Lewis’ example,” Obama wrote.Now is the time for the US Senate to do the right thing. America’s long-standing experiment in democracy is being sorely tested. Future generations are counting on us to meet that test.”

Obama’s op-ed came just hours after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted President Biden for supporting the change to Senate rules.

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McConnell described Biden’s Tuesday address on the subject as a “rant” that was “incorrect, incoherent, and beneath his office.”

“I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years,” McConnell said during a speech on the Senate floor. “I did not recognize the man at that podium yesterday.”

During a speech in Georgia, Biden, who served as a senator from Delaware for decades, said the Senate “has been rendered a shell of its former self” and came out in support of bypassing the senate filibuster, which requires a 60-vote majority to stop debate on legislation, for the legislation. He likened those who oppose changing Senate rules to segregationists and slaveholders.

“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” Biden asked during the speech.

McConnell took particular issue with those comparisons, saying, Biden “invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War to demonize Americans who disagree with him. He compared a bipartisan majority of Senators to literal traitors,” which was “profoundly unpresidential,” McConnell said.

While Biden did not call for the filibuster to be eliminated entirely, he said he supported “getting rid of” it to pass voting rights legislation. The legislation, which is aimed at beating back a swath of restrictive voting measures passed through Republican-led statehouses around the country, is stalled in the Senate.

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Biden’s speech only underscores why the filibuster should remain, McConnell argued.

“In less than a year, ‘restoring the soul of America’ has become: agree with me, or you’re a bigot,” McConnell said. “From lowering the temperature to invoking totalitarian states and the Civil War. This inflammatory rhetoric was not an attempt to persuade skeptical Democratic or Republican senators. In fact, you could not invent a better advertisement for the legislative filibuster than a president abandoning rational persuasion for pure demagoguery.”


Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1. Shannon Larson can be reached at shannon.larson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shannonlarson98.