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Senate Democrats can't agree on Biden's push to pass voting rights legislation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden and Vice President Harris traveled to Atlanta today to make the case for voting rights legislation, including making changes to how the Senate operates in order to get those bills passed. It marked a change for Biden, who served in the chamber for decades. He argued the country is at a turning point, and senators will have to decide which side they are on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every senator, Democrat, Republican and independent, want to declare where they stand not just for the moment but for the ages.

CHANG: Well, joining us now to explain what this means is NPR's Deirdre Walsh, who covers Congress.

Hey, Deirdre

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so President Biden went further than he has ever before on changing Senate rules in his push to pass these voting rights bills. What exactly did he say on that?

WALSH: Well, the president said he now supports changing the Senate rules. He's been dancing around this issue for months.

CHANG: Yeah.

WALSH: But he was explicit today. He argued that after the 2020 election and Republican-led state legislatures have passed a variety of laws that he and Democrats say will restrict access, it's time for the Senate to change the filibuster. That's the rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation. Biden changed his position because of voting rights. He suggested that the Senate should make a carve-out to existing rules and pointed out, you know, the Senate's made these kinds of exceptions before. But he also sort of gave some flexibility to Senate leaders, saying they could change Senate rules, quote, "whichever way they need to be changed," so we'll see what they do in the days forward.

CHANG: Yeah, we'll see. I mean, the thing is two Democratic senators - I'm talking about Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. They don't support changing the rules, so I mean, is there any sign Biden's speech will actually change those two senators' minds?

WALSH: There is not. And if this vote, you know, goes forward, it's expected to fail. You know, the president was extremely forceful, said he's been having quiet conversations, but he says he was sort of sick of being quiet. He laid a stark choice for these Senate Democrats. He didn't name Manchin or Sinema, but he was clearly talking to them when he asked, are you on the side of Dr. Martin Luther King or are you on the side of George Wallace? That's the former Alabama governor who supported Jim Crow laws. I talked to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who was at today's speech. And he told me it was really important for the president today to use his bully pulpit. He said there's been talks for months and months, but now it's time for people to go on the record.

JEFF MERKLEY: The future Americans will pay attention whether we stood to save our democracy or to allow it to decline with the many forms of corruption from gerrymandering to voter suppression to voter subversion.

CHANG: OK. Well, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has set a deadline to vote. That is Martin Luther King Day. That's next Monday. What exactly is the plan?

WALSH: It's unclear, and Senate Democrats themselves don't even really know what the plan is yet. They know there is going to be a vote, but we don't have the details or the timing. There's two options - a carve-out, which we discussed earlier, to pass voting rights with a simple majority, or a reform that they're talking about, talking filibuster, which would force any senator or group of senators to remain on the floor and actually debate the issue.

CHANG: Well, what are Republicans saying so far about the Democrats' plans to push for these rule changes?

WALSH: They're calling any rules change a power grab, and they're accusing Senate Democrats of being hypocrites because they've used the filibuster in the past. They're also threatening if Democrats change the rules now, if Republicans take control in the midterms, Republicans will use new rules to pass a whole laundry list of bills with the simple majority. And those are items that Democrats oppose.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh.

Thank you, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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