Biden puts voting rights in Harris’ portfolio ahead of Senate debate

Announcement comes at event recognizing 100th anniversary of Tulsa Race Massacre

President Joe Biden talks with children Tuesday before delivering remarks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden talks with children Tuesday before delivering remarks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted June 1, 2021 at 6:43pm

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would be taking point on voting rights for his administration.

The move, announced during remarks at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Okla., to recognize the 100th anniversary of the city’s race massacre, puts into Harris’ portfolio a policy issue that might involve her constitutional role as president of the Senate.

“In the last election, more people voted than ever before. Since then, more than 380 bills have been introduced across the country that would make it harder for Americans to vote,” Harris said in a statement after Biden’s speech. “Our administration will not stand by when confronted with any effort that keeps Americans from voting.”

Biden referenced the House passage of an elections and campaign finance overhaul that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says he will force a procedural vote on later this month, even though an evenly divided committee deadlocked on the bill in May. The president also referenced a bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to reauthorize and restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

“June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill. I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” Biden said.

That appeared to be a reference to Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, two Democratic senators who oppose changing chamber rules to eliminate the ability of a minority of senators to block legislation through filibusters.

“We’re not giving up. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act to protect our democracy,” Biden said. “The Senate will take it up later this month, and I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage.”

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As Biden knows from his 36 years as Delaware senator and eight more as vice president, a majority can change Senate rules by using the “nuclear option” — in a 50-50 Senate, Harris, as presiding officer, would make a parliamentary ruling and potentially cast a tie-breaking vote, if needed.

That would require getting all Democratic senators onboard, with no Republicans expected to support such a change.

“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 her statement.

End Citizens United and Let America Vote launched a $12 million television ad campaign before last month’s Senate markup of the election overhaul measure, known as HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate, at the Rules and Administration Committee.

GOP-aligned groups, such as One Nation, an affiliate of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, invested nearly $2 million in opposition ads last month. 

Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, call the bill a power grab. McConnell opposed a similar House-passed bill in 2019, making good on his vow not to give the measure any consideration that Congress when his party controlled the Senate.