On Wednesday, addressing voting rights, President Biden gave the most passionate speech of his presidency, and one of the most impassioned of his long career. He forcefully condemned former president Donald Trump’s relentless and baseless assault on the validity of the 2020 election, saying, “The ‘big lie’ is just that, a big lie.”
He characterized Trump’s continuing claims of fraud rather than accepting the results as an example of “human nature at its worst, something darker and more sinister.” He connected the dots in Trump’s assault on the election, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the new laws enacted in Republican-controlled legislatures.
He described the legislation proposed and enacted in Republican-led states as “the most dangerous threat to voting and integrity of free and fair elections in our history.” He added: “They want the ability to reject the final count and ignore the will of the people if their preferred candidate loses.” He called it “unconscionable.”
His bottom line was a stark warning: “We are facing,” he said, “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”
There was much more in Biden’s speech, quote after quote sounding the alarm. What was missing, as many in his party and leaders of civil rights and voting rights groups that have been pushing the administration and Democrats in Congress were quick to note, was any mention of the obstacle that prevents them from acting.
At no point did he even say the word “filibuster” and how he proposes to defend voting rights without getting around it, save for efforts by the Justice Department to challenge new laws in court. But until Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) agree to change the filibuster rules, Democrats are stuck, and the president’s rhetoric is mostly that, a call to action without the prospect of immediate action.
As Biden was in Philadelphia, Democrats from Texas were in the nation’s capital. These elected representatives had fled the state rather than show up for a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to consider a restrictive voting bill that these same Democrats had blocked at the end of the legislature’s regular session. Their escape from Texas denied Republicans a quorum in the state House needed to conduct business.
They were welcomed by Vice President Harris and congressional Democrats, and they spread themselves across cable television in an effort to amplify their message. They were in Washington, they said, to help bring attention not only to the action back in Texas but also to the broader national issue of voting rights, with the hope of prodding congressional Democrats and the president to act.
State Rep. James Talarico has been part of the group pleading for national help. Blacks and Hispanics make up at least 40 percent of his district in Williamson County, north of Austin. “My constituents are out of time,” he said. “Their constitutional rights at the ballot box are being undermined as we speak. . . . It’s very real for us. People I swore an oath to represent need help now.”
The Texas Democrats were being realistic about the situation back home. In politics, values and convictions and persistence count for much, but numbers often matter more. In the Texas legislature, Republicans have the numbers — majorities in both houses and control of the governor’s office.
Those who fled the state know they ultimately have little chance of stopping Republicans from passing the legislation. These Democrats have jobs and families and obligations that will require enough of them to return to Texas and, eventually, to the House chamber, to allow Republicans to do business. The Democrats who broke quorum say they are committed to staying out of Texas until the special session ends on Aug. 7.
“We can’t do this forever, nor are we suggesting that we would,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “We feel like we bought some time at the end of our regular session and feel like we’re buying some additional time for a few weeks. But it’s a finite window of time.”
Abbott, who has a primary challenge from the right for his 2022 reelection campaign and who Democrats believe has national ambitions beyond that, has made clear he will continue to call special sessions as long as necessary to get the bill passed. Talarico said he sees no way that Abbott will ever yield to Texas Democrats in his push to enact a restrictive voting law. “There is no Texas option,” he said. “The only play is a federal play. That’s the only option for us at this point.”
But what are those options?
A small group of the Texas delegation met with Manchin on Thursday. They came away with at least some sense of optimism that, despite his firm position opposing any change in the filibuster rules, Manchin wants to be seen as a strong advocate of voting rights and is looking for ways to show it.
Earlier in the summer, Manchin proposed an alternative to H.R. 1, but any consideration of it was blocked when Senate Republicans refused to allow debate to begin on voting rights. Texas Democrats said Manchin told the group on Thursday that the better option for action at the federal level would be through the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
But passage of that bill, still in the drafting stages and absent a change in the filibuster, would require 10 Republican votes in the Senate. Manchin promotes bipartisanship and has helped produce a cross-party infrastructure bill, but nothing about the national or state debates around voting rights has had even a smidgen of bipartisanship.
Turner, who met with Manchin in June but not on Thursday, said that he too came away with positive feelings from that meeting. He described what he saw as Manchin’s trajectory over the past weeks as positive, from the senator’s op-ed in The Washington Post declaring firm opposition to changing the filibuster to his compromise proposal to H.R. 1 to his willingness to meet again with a delegation of Texans. “We need to continue to stay engaged with him,” he said.
All this may be wishful thinking on the part of the Texans. There is nothing now to suggest real progress at the national level or even a path to be followed, short of filibuster reform. That has prompted some Democrats to suggest other ways to counter Republican efforts in the states.
Among them is Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, congressman and Obama chief of staff, who said Democrats need to think about this battle as one that will go beyond the next election cycle or two. They should act accordingly, he said. One of his ideas is to use ballot initiatives in states that allow them to put the issue of voting rights directly to the voters.
“This is not the solution but it’s an open door if you want to try it,” Emanuel said. “If you’re stymied in the state capitals and there doesn’t seem to be movement in Washington, open up another line of attack. Florida showed us the way to do it just a few years ago.”
He was referring to the 2018 ballot initiative in Florida that called for restoring voting rights for felons. The measure was approved with more than 60 percent of the vote, though elected Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), later sought to undermine it.
From the president to the vice president to the Texas quorum breakers, Democrats are relying on rhetoric and visibility to make their case to expand and defend voting rights. Meanwhile, Republicans are applying the muscle they enjoy in state capitals to change laws. For now, this is a formula that gives Republicans the upper hand.