President Joe Biden’s fresh vow to save democracy faces an immediate test at home and abroad this week, with a long-shot voting rights push and the most critical US diplomacy with Russia since the Cold War.
With his forceful speech on the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection last week, Biden appeared to engineer a political pivot, putting his credibility on the line to pass new laws rolling back Republican state voter suppression bills and restoring minority voting rights. He will travel to Atlanta, a city synonymous with the civil rights movement, on Tuesday, to try to dislodge the “dagger” he suggested ex-President Donald Trump and his Republican Party are holding “at the throat of our democracy.” But to be successful, Biden must find a way to overcome the roadblock that has so far also derailed his social spending and climate agenda – opposition to amending Senate filibuster rules among moderate Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Biden’s administration is also locked in consequential work overseas, with a flurry of talks with Russia amid US warnings that President Vladimir Putin may be poised to invade a young democracy – Ukraine. The Kremlin is using its former satellite state as a pawn in a gambit aimed at driving NATO out of Eastern European democracies that were once within its Cold War orbit. US efforts to convince Russia to stand down will have huge implications for the geopolitical situation in Europe. And Biden’s tussle for influence with Putin is all the more ironic since the Russian leader is not only threatening democracy across the Atlantic. He is accused by US intelligence of interfering in US elections to help Trump, the ex-President who eventually sought to deny the will of voters in 2020 by attempting a coup and who often genuflected toward the Russian leader.
The talks in Europe, and Biden’s capacity to unlock the voting rights puzzle in Washington, will be a marker of his presidential clout as he tries to bounce back after a rough political patch. The stakes of the voting rights initiative is huge, testing Democrats’ ability to protect access to the franchise, especially for minority voters, which is under threat from GOP-led legislatures inspired by Trump’s lies. And the two-front administration push will go a long way toward deciding the outcome in the US and internationally of a presidency Biden has dedicated to safeguarding the global democracy that he says is under mortal threat.
A full bore push for voting rights
Voting rights has often seemed less of a priority than other Biden agenda items in a first year in power dominated by the pandemic and ambitious spending proposals, including the bipartisan infrastructure law that passed and the stalled social safety net bill.
But both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Atlanta to build support for the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The first bill would make Election Day a public holiday, mandate same-day voter registration and allow all voters to request mail-in ballots, among other provisions. It would also reverse partisan takeovers of election administration contained in some recent GOP legislation in the states. The latter bill would restore federal government oversight of state voting laws gutted by the Supreme Court in a 2013 decision. Since Republicans universally oppose the Freedom to Vote Act and only one of their senators, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, backs the measure named for civil rights hero and late Democratic Rep. John Lewis, Democrats must get around Republican use of the filibuster that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass most major legislation. But Manchin of West Virginia and Sinema of Arizona have been reluctant to water down filibuster rules.
Many Democrats are pleading with them to relent, arguing that a cascade of voter suppression laws passed by Republican-run states represents an existential threat to free and fair elections that can only be reversed by federal action in what may be the waning months of Democratic power before midterm elections in November.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has vowed to hold a vote by Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a week from Monday – if Republicans do not yield. Supporters of the legislation are pushing for a limited filibuster opt-out for a voting rights overhaul and are trying to get Manchin on board – especially given that he wrote the Freedom to Vote Act himself, after Republicans balked at an earlier bill that contained more sweeping reforms.
“He pulled it together and they’re still refusing to support it, so he has all the cover he needs to now step away and do what we need done, and that is provide the 49th vote and I hope that the 50th vote will come along,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn said on CNN’s “Newsroom” on Saturday.
Speaking to Fox’s Bret Baier on Sunday, the South Carolina Democrat increased the pressure on Manchin. He said he agreed with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren that the Senate filibuster had “deep roots in racism” and should not be allowed to cement a veto for the minority.
Manchin last week dealt a blow to the hopes of voting reform advocates like Clyburn, a key figure in rescuing Biden’s then-languishing presidential campaign in early 2020 and an important ambassador to Black voters.
“I’ve always been for rules being done the way we’ve always done, two-thirds of the members voting,” Manchin indicated to CNN’s Jake Tapper. He warned that getting rid of the filibuster would hurt Democrats if Republicans win back control of the Senate. “The reason I say it’s a heavy lift is once you change a rule or you have a carve out – I’ve always said this – anytime there’s a carve out, you eat the whole turkey. There’s nothing left because it comes back and forth,” he said.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday poured more pressure on recalcitrant senators from her party, describing Republican state voting laws, which in many cases make it harder to cast ballots and easier for politicians to interfere in elections, as a “very major threat on our democracy.”
“They are not only suppressing the vote … they are nullifying elections,” the California Democrat said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accuse Democrats of threatening the right of states to run their own elections. Many of the new state laws, however, are justified on the grounds of “election integrity” – a code word rooted in Trump’s lies about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential vote that have been disproved multiple times.
Russia and China think ‘democracy’s days are numbered’
During his January 6 anniversary speech in Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Thursday, Biden warned that foreign enemies were watching to see whether the United States safeguarded its own democracy under an unprecedented threat in modern times.
“From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered,” Biden said. “They’re betting America’s a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.”
Two of the most dangerous US foreign policy challenges involve two democracies – Taiwan and Ukraine – pinning their hopes of survival on American support as they exist under threat from much more powerful and proprietorial autocracies, China and Russia.
Biden has personally warned Putin at several virtual summits of devastating sanctions if he orders tens of thousands of Russia troops into Ukraine to follow up on the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. US officials will give the same message this week in talks that began on Sunday with a working dinner between Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva. The talks will resume on Monday. Two days later, the NATO-Russia Council will convene in Brussels. The Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes both Russia and the United States, meets on Thursday.
But there is little hope of progress. The United States argues that Russia is demanding concessions that would permanently weaken NATO in Europe with its calls for the withdrawal of troops and weapons from ex-Warsaw Pact nations. Moscow also wants assurances that Ukraine – a former Soviet state – will never be allowed to join the alliance.
“It’s hard to see making actual progress, as opposed to talking, in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday. Ryabkov was equally downbeat, saying he was “disappointed” by signals from Washington and Brussels. “In short, they reflect a lack of understanding of what we need,” he said before laying out a wish list the West will never accept. “We need legal guarantees, legal guarantees that NATO will not expand further, eliminate everything that the alliance has created, driven by anti-Russian phobias and all sorts of false ideas about what is the essence of Russian policy for the period since 1997.”
His warning was chillingly resonant of late 20th century clashes between two ideologically opposed superpowers. While talk of a second Cold War now often refers to a building American clash with China rather than Russia, there is one big difference between the period between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Back then, the challenge to America democracy came mostly from abroad. Now, it is under siege at home.