WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden was set Tuesday to defy Republicans and back a controversial Senate rule change to force through voting rights reforms that he says are crucial to saving US democracy.
Coming off a powerful speech last week to mark the January 6 anniversary of an attempt by Donald Trump's supporters to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Biden will argue in the Georgia state capital Atlanta that Congress needs to pass laws protecting voter rights.
"The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation," Biden will say, according to an excerpt of the speech distributed by the White House. "Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand."
Democrats accuse Republican state legislatures of enacting a spate of local laws 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 Democratic push as an attempt to manipulate the election landscape by switching power to the federal authorities. They are unanimous in opposing the two bills up for debate in the Senate.
Ordinarily, that opposition would ensure the bills' death. Democrats have only 50 votes in the evenly split Senate and under the filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of 60 for many votes, they would need support from 10 Republicans.
Biden has been reluctant to mess with the filibuster, given warnings from Republicans that removing the supermajority requirement will push the Senate into all-out conflict, with no bipartisanship at all.
Suspending the filibuster for a particular issue is possible, but happens so rarely it is dubbed the "nuclear option."
Biden, citing the extreme urgency of fixing the US electoral system, now appears ready to bow to powerful internal party demands and give his blessing.
Lifting the filibuster would require unanimous Democratic support. If achieved, that would then allow the party to pass the two voting rights bills with simple majorities.
Saying that "abuse" of the filibuster power has "injured" the Senate, Biden "supports... changing the Senate rules," a White House official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
- 'Belly of the beast' -
The president is going 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. The White House says Biden feels it's time to go big on a key Democratic ambition.
"He believes the stakes should be raised. He wouldn't be going to Georgia... if he wasn't ready," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Democrats say there's an existential need for reforms, following the unprecedented chaos of 2020.
According to Democrats, bills under consideration would prevent cheating, ranging from partisan drawing of election districts to the use of security measures as a way to dampen voter turnout in pro-Democrat districts.
The laws would also end the potential ability of state authorities to rig results under arcane existing rules.
"We are going right to the belly of the beast, or ground zero, for voter suppression, voter subversion and obstruction," Cedric Richmond, White House senior adviser, told Politico.
The push is high risk for Biden, who is already struggling to get his party to pass a major social spending package. It's far from sure he can get all 50 of his senators to back overriding the filibuster and failure would not only doom the voting reforms but humiliate him personally.
- 'Renaissance' or 'power grab?' -
Biden will be accompanied to Georgia -- a crucible of US civil rights history -- by Kamala Harris, the first Black vice president. Harris, also the first woman and first person of South Asian origin to hold the office, spoke before Biden at his forceful January 6 speech.
Biden's goal, Psaki said, is to "ensure that January 6 doesn't mark the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance."
For Republicans, the picture is inverted.
"They want to silence millions of Americans and take over the Senate so they can take over elections," Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said.
"A power grab," another senior Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham, said.
As for breaking the filibuster, Graham warns that what goes around comes around, with Republicans then freed to suspend the super-majority rule as soon as they regain control of the Senate.
The result, he said, would be the end of bipartisanship, with "wild swings" between "extreme agendas of the left and the right."