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Biden taps Harris to lead administration's voting rights efforts

Texas Democrats block voting restrictions bill
Local Matters: Texas Democrats block voting restrictions bill 07:47

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration's efforts to protect voting rights, as he urged Congress to make June "a month of action on Capitol Hill." Speaking at an event in Tulsa to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre that ravaged a Black neighborhood, the president also assailed recent laws restricting voting rights passed by Republican-led states.

In a statement released after Mr. Biden's announcement, Harris said the administration "will not stand by when confronted with any effort that keeps Americans from voting."

"In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide. And we will also work with members of Congress to help advance these bills," Harris said in the statement. "The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process. This is the work of democracy."

In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Biden called on the Senate to pass the For the People Act, a sprawling voting rights and elections reform bill which has faced unilateral opposition from Republicans. He also advocated for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late congressman and civil rights icon, which would restore provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act knocked down by the Supreme Court.

"This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I've never seen," the president said about the recent spate of state voting restriction laws. Several battleground states controlled by Republicans that have pushed for big changes in voting and election laws in the wake of former President Trump's electoral loss and a rise in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Biden promised to "fight like heck" to enact the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

"June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill," Mr. Biden said. He acknowledged the extremely narrow Democratic majorities in Congress, and mentioned "two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends." The president appeared to be alluding to Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the two most vocal Democratic opponents of eliminating the filibuster, which would allow legislation to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. Sinema supports the For the People Act while Manchin does not, instead advocating for senators to work on crafting voting rights legislation on a bipartisan basis.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki denied that Mr. Biden was criticizing Manchin and Sinema, telling reporters on Wednesday that the president was just referencing commentary he hears on cable news.

"I don't think he was intending to convey anything other than a little bit of commentary on TV punditry," Psaki said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday that the Senate will vote on the For the People Act in the last week of the June work period. But the bill is unlikely to move forward in the Senate, as most legislation requires 60 votes to advance, and Democrats have a 50-seat majority. Republicans oppose the bill, meaning that a vote to end debate on it is all but certain to fail without ending the filibuster.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated Republican opposition to the measure in a press conference on Wednesday, and denied that the slate of recent voting bills were aimed at lowering turnout among minority voters.

"I don't think any of these efforts at the state level are designed to suppress the vote based upon race," McConnell said.

The bill would revise government ethics and campaign finance laws, and try to strengthen voting rights by creating automatic voter registration and expanding access to early and absentee voting. The legislation would also require states to overhaul their voter registration systems, limit states' ability to remove people from voter rolls, increase federal funds for election security, and reform the redistricting process.  

Schumer told reporters on Friday that "we've had two very good, strong and intense discussions in our caucus" about the bill, and said that "it was made clear how important S. 1 is to the country, to our Democratic majority and to individual senators."

"Those discussions are ongoing and I have a lot of faith in them," Schumer said.

Tim Perry contributed to this report.

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