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Biden pivots to voting rights after Build Back Better agenda stalls in Congress

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President Joe Biden on Friday revived his effort to get Congress to pass sweeping election reforms, declaring during a commencement address at South Carolina State University that Republicans have led an "unrelenting assault on the right to vote."

"This new sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion, it’s un-American, it’s undemocratic and, sadly, it is unprecedented since Reconstruction,” Biden said, addressing students at the historically black university, where he was the guest of House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Biden's speech emphasized the importance of historically black colleges and universities, mentioned his record on police reform and infrastructure, and ended with Biden ceremonially handing Clyburn his college degree — which he had earned 60 years earlier but did not receive in person.

But the president reserved his strongest language for the issue of elections, leveling broadsides against congressional Republicans for blocking Democratic bills to reform elections.

Biden claimed that he "got started in politics because of the civil rights movement," and said he used to attend black churches after Catholic mass on Sunday mornings, "getting ready to go out and desegregate restaurants and movie theaters."

"Well guess what, I've never seen anything like the unrelenting assault on the right to vote. Never," Biden said, referring to voter identification laws and Republican-backed restrictions on mail-in ballots and other reforms passed by several states in the wake of the 2020 election.

Democrats claim that these reforms make it harder for racial minorities to vote and that federal legislation is needed to override these state laws. They've proposed bills that would set federal standards for elections, automatically register eligible U.S. citizens to vote, expand early voting, ease restrictions on mail-in voting, eliminate identification requirements for absentee ballots, and more.

Republicans counter that these reforms would make it easier to commit voter fraud and have blocked efforts by Democrats to pass these bills in the Senate.

“Each and every time it gets to be brought up, that other team blocks the ability to even start to discuss it,” Biden complained. “That other team — what used to be called the Republican Party. But this battle is not over. We must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We’re going to keep up the fight until we get it done. And you’re going to keep up the fight. And we need your help, badly.”

Biden's focus on election reforms comes days after the White House previewed a pivot to the issue, since the president's Build Back Better agenda was stalled in Congress.

Thanks in part to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Senate Democrats did not have enough votes to advance a $2 trillion spending bill that would overhaul U.S. health care education, climate, immigration, and tax laws, in addition to extending several COVID-19 programs. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) shelved the Build Back Better bill for 2021 because Manchin would not commit to voting for it, citing his concerns with deficit spending and rising inflation.

While Biden will publicly rally Democrats to push for voting reforms ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, White House aides privately acknowledge that those bills will hit a dead end in the Senate. Politico reported Thursday that Biden's aides are clear-eyed that unless the Senate ends the filibuster's 60-vote requirement — which is not happening as long as Manchin and other centrist Democrats have anything to say about it — any talk of election reform is just talk.

So why is Biden shifting his focus now? According to his political advisers, the president ought to use his bully pulpit to rally his base into action before the midterm elections.

“The time is now. The urgency could not be more palpable than it is now,” Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and one of Biden's close advisers, said. Sharpton told Politico that voting rights needs to be a top priority for the administration to keep black voters activated and engaged in politics.

“An inaction at this point would lead to an inaction of black voters. People are saying, ‘If they don’t do this, I’m not voting,’” he said. "People are saying they feel betrayed.”

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