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Biden faces the limits of an already limited arsenal on voting rights

But next week, when the Senate passes the Democrats-signed election bill designed to expand access to the vote, it will fail. Unless there is a change of mind among 10 republicans or some Democrats abandoning their resistance to changing Senate rules, Biden’s legislative agenda on voting and electoral protections will be significantly limited.

The White House says it is using every tool at its disposal to call attention to restrictive voting laws passed in GOP-led states across the country, including potential legal challenges. Administration officials say Biden uses attacks on voting access in all of his major speeches to send a signal not just to voters, but to those in power that this is a personal priority . And while the decision to give Vice President Kamala Harris the portfolio of voting rights was interpreted as a sign that the White House saw the problem as intractable, senior officials insist that giving her “power to vote” summons ”has actually shown how seriously they take it.

It’s a big strategy, ”said Cedric Richmond, director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. “Everything is played on the bridge and we are up to the challenge.

Next week, the Senate is expected to vote on its own package of electoral and electoral reforms, after the House narrowly adopted its version earlier this year. Despite the roadblocks, the White House does not concede legislative defeat. “Sometimes it’s not the most appealing process,” said Richmond. “It’s the law making process, but we’re not waiting for it. “

To build momentum, the White House turned to Harris. Over the past month, the vice president traveled to South Carolina to hold a listening session with local suffrage advocates, and she met with Texas lawmakers on Wednesday to step up efforts to push back a GOP law restricting voting. Republican state legislatures across the country are proposing or instituting new barriers to postal voting and targeting election administrators with criminal penalties in response to bogus conspiracies of a stolen election propagated by former President Donald Trump.

In an effort to combat changes in Republican-led states, the White House has also sought allies in the private sector.

“We’ve been talking to companies all over the place,” said Richmond. “We want businesses to step up and talk about the importance of meaningful voting rights.”

Richmond added that the White House is asking businesses “to do whatever they can in their toolbox” to not only promote the vote, but to “shine a light on these laws designed to prevent people from voting or to put obstacles in their place “.

Harris plans to meet with members of the private sector in the future. Despite traveling to Atlanta on Friday to continue the administration’s vaccination campaign, a senior administration official said “voting will be a part of it.” Aides said the vice president is focused on building a coalition across the country, including activists and lawmakers, to lobby state and local governments.

But the Biden administration’s most ambitious actions are unlikely to come from within the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Instead, the Justice Department will be at the heart of the president’s battle with states passing new election laws restricting access to the ballot.

“Enforcement of the laws we have, even as we ask for more legislative support, is essential,” said Justin Levitt, White House senior policy adviser on democracy and voting rights. Levitt, who worked in the Obama administration’s Justice Department, quickly added that execution decisions “are entirely in the hands” of Attorney General Merrick Garland.

In a speech last week, Garland documented the country’s history by blocking the right to vote for African Americans and people of color, and he pledged to increase the staff of the department’s Civil Rights Division. to enforce applicable law. Garland said the DOJ was “reviewing” new laws passed by states “to restrict voter access” and promised the agency “would not hesitate to act” without explicitly providing for litigation.

“Without new federal legislation, the biggest lever of the Biden administration is [the] DOJ, ”said Rick Hasen, professor of electoral law at the University of California, Irvine. The Ministry of Justice can bring an action under the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act and other laws “to ensure compliance with the federal law protecting voting rights and a fair electoral process, ”he said.

“It’s not as good in terms of protecting voting rights as preclearance, killed by the Supreme Court in 2013,” Hasen said, referring to sections of the law. 1965 Voting Rights Act which were overturned in a decision known as the Shelby v. Holder. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Civil rights groups, activists and state lawmakers do not blame the White House for the current congressional stalemate. A majority that spoke to POLITICO said the White House was doing all it could, unless it publicly cornered Democratic senators opposed to the Senate filibuster amendment, which requires a 60-vote threshold for the Senate. most laws. Biden, himself, has not endorsed the idea of ​​major changes to filibuster, even though progressives advocate the idea of ​​an exemption specifically for voting and election laws.

Instead, Democratic activists and civil rights leaders have directed much of their anger and frustration towards Congress.

“It is ironic at best, insulting indeed, for the Senate to unanimously make a public holiday of what happened in 1865 … but then ignore the racial implications of what is happening in 2021 with the vote, ”said the Rev. Al Sharpton, Chairman of the National Action Network, referring to Congressional action taken this week to make Juneteenth, the date of the end of slavery in the United States, a federally recognized holiday.

Even Congressional Democrats say the responsibility lies with them. Asked about the impact the Biden administration could have on strengthening voting protections, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) Said: “I think less of Biden’s presidency than what we do here.”

Kaine said some of his fellow Democrats “strongly believe” that while changes to electoral laws restricting voting go unchallenged, “they feel pessimistic about their chances in 22 or 24”.

This week, Senator Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) who was the only Senate Democrat to resist the party’s election bill, presented its own reform proposals. The Senate will vote on the bill next week with changes made to gain Manchin’s support. But he will fail without at least ten Republican votes.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn have made it clear to House Democrats this week that they are committed to passing their elections and voting reauthorization bill as much as possible, have several Democratic House assistants told POLITICO. Democratic leaders believe it is important to have a proposal that can win the support of Democrats in both chambers, a House source said.

A senior administration official working on voting rights said on Wednesday they had not had a chance to consider the changes Manchin proposed. The White House declined to comment on Thursday.

Despite the difficult calculations, the White House and most Democratic lawmakers will not publicly consider a scenario in which their key voting and election laws cannot be passed by both houses. And Richmond said the White House was not ready to admit that the only way forward would be to remove the filibuster.

For now, they are working on the margins. Harris met in Roosevelt Room 16 on Wednesday with Texas Democratic lawmakers who in May left the state Capitol to block passage of a bill that would have restricted voting rights in the state. .

The group discussed the Texas bill but also discussed with Harris what the administration and Congress can do at the federal level. Texas lawmakers who attended the meeting said Harris understood it had to be a national effort. Harris made no promises on anything in his conversation with Texas Democrats, but told them it was a priority.

“Our plan was to come to DC and try to ignite the imagination of this country on the gravity of things in Texas. It was our plan on the moon, ”Texas State Representative Gina Hinojosa said after the meeting. “Texas is truly the ground zero for GOP voter suppression efforts. And I think if you’re not there and you don’t experience it, you don’t understand how bad it is.

Marianne LeVine contributed reporting.

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