WASHINGTON — President Biden made an impassioned case for voting rights on Tuesday, excoriating a Republican-led cascade of restrictive voting laws around the country as “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War” and calling for a “coalition of Americans of every background and political party” to protect the right to vote.
But his rhetoric immediately collided with reality: Scores of Republican-led bills meant to restrict voting access are working their way through statehouses across the country, and two ambitious pieces of legislation meant to expand voting rights currently have no path to adoption in Congress. On top of it all, Mr. Biden has bucked rising pressure from Democrats to support eliminating the filibuster, which would allow the voting-rights bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority.
Instead, Mr. Biden used the bully pulpit to frame the issue as a moral reckoning that has the potential to derail American democracy, and confronted the limits of his power as president to deliver on one of his most consequential promises.
“We’ll be asking my Republican friends in Congress and states and cities and counties to stand up for God’s sake,” Mr. Biden said. “And help prevent this concerted effort to undermine our election and the sacred right to vote. Have you no shame?”
Mr. Biden also spoke more directly than he has in the past about the conspiracy theories about the election, hatched and spread by his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, as a “darker and more sinister” underbelly of American politics. Mr. Biden did not mention Mr. Trump by name, but instead warned that “bullies and merchants of fear” have posed an existential threat to democracy.
“No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny, such high standards,” Mr. Biden said. “The big lie is just that: A big lie.”
Aside from reckoning with the doubt Mr. Trump and his associates have spread about the veracity of the election, Mr. Biden was in Philadelphia to reassure Democrats who say he has not done enough to deliver on a promise to make voting rights a central theme of his presidency. His speech came as 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 back against 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. Mr. Biden said a year ago that strengthening the act would be one of his first priorities upon taking office. On Tuesday, he sought to put the onus on lawmakers.
“The court’s decision, as harmful as it is, does not limit the Congress’s ability to repair the damage done,” Mr. Biden said. “As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it,” he added, referring to the two Democratic bills seeking to expand voting rights.
But his rallying cry only underscored the impossibility of the task. Neither bill currently has a path to his desk amid unified Republican opposition. Republicans filibustered the broad elections overhaul known as the For the People Act last month, and are expected to do the same if Democrats try to bring up the other measure, named for a former congressman and civil rights icon, which would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Activists who had hoped Mr. Biden would stake out a public position on eliminating the filibuster to get those bills through the Senate got their answer on Tuesday: “I’m not filibustering now,” Mr. Biden told reporters who shouted questions at him after his speech.
“It was strange to hear,” Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate, said after watching Mr. Biden’s 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.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the speech in Philadelphia and spoke to the president shortly afterward, said that he had praised Mr. Biden for framing the issue as a “21st century Jim Crow assault” on voting rights, but said he told the president he still needed to go further on the filibuster: “He said ‘we’re still working through our position on that,’” Mr. Sharpton said.
Joanna Lydgate, the cofounder of the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan organization advocating for secure elections, said in an interview that Mr. Biden effectively captured the nature of what Democrats feel is an assault on democracy.
“He did not pull any punches,” Ms. Lydgate said. “He was very clear that our country is under attack, our democracy is under attack, and we are at a turning point in our country.”
Mr. Biden’s speech came as a group of Democrats in the Texas Legislature fled their state on Monday and traveled to Washington to prevent State House Republicans from attaining a quorum, a temporary way to delay state lawmakers from taking up restrictive voting measures proposed there.
Both measures would ban 24-hour voting and drive-through voting; prohibit election officials from proactively sending out absentee ballot applications to voters who have not requested them; add new voter identification requirements for voting by mail; limit third-party ballot collection; increase the criminal penalties for election workers who run afoul of regulations; limit what assistance can be provided to voters; and greatly expand the authority and autonomy of partisan poll watchers.
Representative James Talarico, the youngest member of the Texas State Legislature at 32 years old, said the group of Democrats had come to Washington, in part, to pressure Mr. Biden to do more.
“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,” Mr. Talarico said. “But protecting our democracy should’ve been at the very top of the list, because without it none of these issues matter.”
The restrictions mirror key provisions of a restrictive law passed in Georgia earlier this year, which went even further to assert Republican control over the State Election Board and empower the G.O.P. to suspend county election officials. In June, the Department of Justice sued Georgia over the law, the first significant move of the Biden administration to challenge voter restrictions at the state level.
Outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, 47 Texas Democratic state representatives appealed for passage of the For the People Act, which would aim to rein in state restrictions on voting. Back in Austin, Republicans vented their anger and the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, vowed to call “special session after special session after special session” until an election bill is passed.
The group is set to meet later in the week with Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who has opposed weakening the filibuster to pass voting measures.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.
(With inputs from NYTimes)
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