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Biden Calls Republican Efforts To Restrict Voting 'Authoritarian' In Speech

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today President Biden delivered his most forceful rebuke of the wave of voting restriction proposed by Republicans across the country, arguing that those efforts are the biggest threat to American democracy since the Civil War.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting, and we're going to challenge it vigorously.

KELLY: The speech today was at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and it comes as federal legislation to address the issue has stalled in Congress. NPR political correspondent Juana Summers joins us.

Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: The White House has been promising this speech for weeks. Tell us a little bit more about what the president ultimately said.

SUMMERS: President Biden compared modern-day efforts to curtail access to voting to the voter suppression that took place during - under the KKK and Jim Crow laws. He described this as an unfolding assault taking place in America today. He said that democracy had faced a critical test in 2020, and it held, but that the midterm elections next year could highlight the damaging impacts of these new laws.

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BIDEN: We're going to face another test in 2022, a new wave of unprecedented voter suppression and raw and sustained election subversion. We have to prepare now.

SUMMERS: But he didn't just focus on laws that restrict access to the ballot. He also highlighted changes to election law that impact who certifies election and that have put that task into more partisan hands. We also heard President Biden speak at some length in defense of the election that led to his presidency. And he made a sharp rebuke of the false claims by former President Trump that voter fraud had cost President Trump the 2020 election.

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BIDEN: No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny and such high standards. The big lie is just that - a big lie.

(APPLAUSE)

KELLY: Juana, I've got to kind of split screen in my head. I'm thinking as President Biden was speaking in Pennsylvania today, here in Washington, a lot of Democratic lawmakers from the state of Texas have showed up. We talked to one of them elsewhere on the show today. They're here in part to call on Congress to pass new federal voting laws. What is Biden saying about that?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So Biden described the For the People Act, which is that sweeping voting and elections bill that Democrats are pushing, as a national imperative. And he also called for the passage of a bill named for the late Congressman John Lewis, which would restore some parts of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The challenge with both of those bills, though, is that neither bill has a path to passage in Congress right now, given that there is unified Republican opposition.

KELLY: Right.

SUMMERS: That has led for a number of calls for Biden to come out in support of either eliminating or modifying the legislative filibuster. And that would allow these bills to pass the Senate with only Democratic votes. This was a topic that has come up frequently, including in a meeting that the president had with civil rights leaders at the White House last week. Now, in the speech today, the president did not mention the filibuster, but our colleague Asma Khalid, who covers the White House, spoke with Vice President Harris earlier in the day. And in that interview, the vice president suggested that she has talked about the future of the filibuster with senators.

KELLY: And in terms of how invested this White House is - some critics of President Biden, some of his allies have said they want him to do more on voting rights. They've argued, look; you promised. You were going to make this a central theme of your presidency. How is today's speech being received?

SUMMERS: I talked with Vicki Miller of Indivisible Philadelphia, which is one of the groups that held a rally as the president was set to speak. She told me that she did not believe the issue of voting rights had been made enough of a priority compared with other legislative issues like the American Rescue Plan, for example.

VICKI MILLER: We're so happy that he put his muscle, if you will - his presidential muscle behind that bill and also for the infrastructure bills. We want him to do the same thing for the For the People Act because we believe that without it, our democracy will be tremendously weakened.

SUMMERS: And there's also frustration, of course, that the president did not mention the filibuster, despite the fact that this is an issue he speaks about with such urgency.

KELLY: NPR's Juana Summers, thanks.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.