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Invoking history, Biden launches high-risk gambit for voting rights reforms

President, traveling to Georgia amid sinking poll numbers, describes bills as ‘turning point,’ but passing them will require using ‘nuclear option’ to defuse GOP opposition

US President Joe Biden (second right) and Vice President Kamala Harris (far right) pause with Martin Luther King III and other members of the King family after a wreath laying at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
US President Joe Biden (second right) and Vice President Kamala Harris (far right) pause with Martin Luther King III and other members of the King family after a wreath laying at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

AFP — Caught between fierce pressure from the left and right, United States President Joe Biden was set Tuesday to endorse a risky bid to force voting rights reforms through the Senate, arguing that American democracy faces a “defining” moment.

Biden flew to Atlanta, Georgia, the crucible of the civil rights movement, for a major speech urging reforms that will decide whether the country chooses “democracy over autocracy,” according to excerpts released by the White House.

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 was set to describe the fate of the two bills under consideration in the Senate as “a turning point” in history.

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.

Underlining Biden’s shaky political standing, prominent Black politician and Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams was missing 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 also laid a wreath at the crypt of slain civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and visited the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“This is one of those defining moments, it really is,” Biden told reporters as he left the White House. “People are going to be judged where they were before and where they were after the vote.”

US President Joe Biden talks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, in Washington, DC. (AP/Evan Vucci)

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 Democratic push as an attempt to manipulate the election landscape by switching power to federal authorities. They are unanimous in opposing the two bills up for debate in the Senate.

Nearly all bills in the Senate require 60 votes in order to pass, due to the filibuster rule. The Democrats only have 50.

To break that impasse, Biden is set to endorse a rarely used maneuver circumventing the filibuster just for this vote, a White House official said. This would let Democrats pass the two voting rights laws without any Republican support. The filibuster would remain in place otherwise.

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.

Perhaps worse for Biden, the maneuver needs unanimous Democratic support to happen — and that’s far from assured, with at least two of the more conservative Democratic senators clearly skeptical.

If circumventing the filibuster fails, Biden will not only see the voting rights bills defeated, but face political humiliation.

Raising the stakes

The president travels 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,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

According to Democrats, the two 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.

Voters walk to voting booths at a polling station at David R. Cawley Middle School, on February 11, 2020, in Hooksett, New Hampshire. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

The laws would also end the potential ability of state authorities to rig results under arcane procedures — a scenario that Trump allies tried to encourage after his 2020 loss to Biden.

“We are going right to the belly of the beast, or ground zero, for voter suppression,” Cedric Richmond, White House senior adviser, told Politico.

But Biden will be in Georgia knowing that his Black supporters — key to his winning 2020 coalition — are watching his every step.

“His visit can’t be a mere formality,” warned MLK’s son, Martin Luther King III, in a tweet.

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