With voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate because of Republican opposition, Vice President Harris suggested that she has talked to senators about exceptions to the legislative filibuster but said she will not be publicly negotiating an issue that the White House insists is up to lawmakers, she told NPR in an interview Tuesday.
"I believe that of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights," Harris said. "And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities."
Pressed on whether she is advocating that senators support a carveout to the filibuster for voting rights proposed by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Harris said, "I don't mean this in any offense, but I'm not going to negotiate this way. But I'm certainly having conversations with folks."
The vice president did not clarify whom she has talked to about voting rights.
The For The People Act, an expansive bill that includes provisions on voting access and campaign finance, received the votes of all Democrats in the Senate in June but was blocked by a Republican filibuster, a legislative procedure that requires 60 votes to advance legislation in the Senate. The chamber is currently split 50-50 between the parties.
Many progressives in Congress and outside activists have been calling for the end of the filibuster over voting rights.
Clyburn, a close ally of President Biden, has suggested allowing bills related to the Constitution, including voting legislation, to pass with a simple majority. That could be achieved with the votes of all 50 Democrats and Harris breaking a tie in her role as president of the Senate. Clyburn told Politico that he addressed the idea with Harris.
"Obviously, it's going to require all the Democrats in the Senate to agree with that approach," Harris said.
The White House has said that Biden does not support ending the filibuster altogether but that the administration leaves any changes up to the Senate. The White House did point out that there are not enough votes to end the filibuster outright, with Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona opposed to such a move.
Democrats' strategy may simply hinge on winning future elections
Biden last month put Harris in charge of the administration's voting rights efforts, after the White House said she asked to add the issue to her portfolio. She has been meeting with voting rights groups and traveling the country.
Biden traveled to Philadelphia on Tuesday to deliver a speech on voting rights that has been promised for weeks. Progressives have been frustrated that he hasn't more forcefully used the presidential "bully pulpit" to protect voting rights.
Discussing what the administration can do short of congressional action, Harris pointed primarily to voter registration, education and turnout efforts, as well as voter protection, emphasizing the need for Democrats to win not just in the 2022 midterms, but in state-level elections this year. Both Virginia and New Jersey are holding gubernatorial and state legislative elections in 2021.
When asked if winning elections is the primary strategy for Democrats to overcome Republican voting restrictions, Harris said it is about "something much more fundamental." Harris cited people working multiple jobs and those with disabilities as being threatened by new restrictions on early and absentee voting. Medical conditions typically qualify voters for absentee ballots, but advocates warn that methods of voting that disabled people rely on, including drive-through voting sites, are being targeted in some states.
"I do believe that in many of these states, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so that they won't vote," the vice president said. "And this is then about attempts to take the power from the people, and we all need to stand and say, 'We will not allow this to happen on our watch.' "
The vice president was in Detroit for a voting rights event on Monday, when Texas Democratic lawmakers left their state to block the GOP-led legislature from passing voting restrictions. She plans to meet with those lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this week, according to the White House.
Last month, she met with several of those officials after they had successfully stopped a Republican voting bill. They had come to Washington to press for passage of the Democratic voting legislation that is currently stalled in the Senate.
Harris told NPR that part of her effort is "lifting up folks like the Texas legislature and the voices of those courageous leaders."
Harris recognizes headwinds to fight voting restrictions in court
Among the administration's most aggressive moves to protect voting rights is a lawsuit the Department of Justice filed to block Georgia's new voting law, arguing it targets the rights of Black voters. But a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding voting restrictions in Arizona showed that a conservative judiciary may stand in the way of legal efforts to fight such laws.
Harris acknowledged that the ruling complicates efforts to fight voting restrictions through litigation. "What the Supreme Court has done, it does present a real challenge for us," she said.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
President Biden says the U.S. is facing its most significant test of democracy since the Civil War. In Philadelphia yesterday, he gave a speech criticizing Republican efforts to change election rules and restrict voting.
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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.
PFEIFFER: Vice President Kamala Harris is leading the White House efforts on voting. And she spoke yesterday with NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, who joins us this morning. Hi, Asma.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
PFEIFFER: So as you know, the Democrats have a voting bill. It's pretty far-reaching. But it's stuck in Congress. So given that, what does the Biden administration think it can do on voting rights?
KHALID: Well, Sacha, that's actually the very first question I asked the vice president. And she told me there's a lot that, in their view, they can still do at the ground level, like coalition-building.
KAMALA HARRIS: It includes resources and attention being given to registering people to vote, to educating people about what's at stake and what is actually happening in terms of these threats to their rights. It's about turning out voters.
KHALID: And she said it's also about voter protection. Throughout our interview, it really sounded like the Biden administration is banking on voter turnout as the solution to counter GOP laws in states that are restricting votes.
PFEIFFER: Give us a sense of what else the two of you talked about.
KHALID: We also talked about how the Senate filibuster might affect this all in the courts and how this would factor into the administration's thinking. Let's listen to a chunk of the interview.
You know, Congressman Jim Clyburn, who, we should point out, is a good friend of the White House, is calling for a tweak to the filibuster. He said not to end it entirely, but to carve out an exception that could allow Democrats to pass voting rights legislation with a simple majority. He told Politico that he actually explicitly shared his thinking on this with you. So I want to ask, do you support that idea? Do you think it's something that could work?
HARRIS: Well, here's what I'll say. I believe that of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights. And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities. Now, the members of the Senate are going to have to address this. And we're going to continue to work to find a path forward, no matter how difficult. And obviously, it's going to require all the Democrats to - in the Senate to agree with that approach.
KHALID: Is it an approach that you've been advocating for at all just amongst your former colleagues in the Senate that maybe it is worth carving out an exception for voting rights?
HARRIS: I mean, I'm not going to kind of negotiate with - sorry, but I don't mean this in any offense. But I'm not going to negotiate this way. But I'm certainly having conversations with folks.
KHALID: OK. I wanted to ask about the courts. Are you concerned that the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act means that the DOJ suit against Georgia's voting restrictions could be, in some way, doomed given the Supreme Court decision?
HARRIS: I mean, look; since 2013 with Shelby v. Holder and now this most recent case, we know that we are up against some very serious obstacles. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to address the disparities that we have known have existed and still exists in our country. And so, yeah, this - what the Supreme Court has done, it does present a real challenge for us. But I applaud, for example, the DOJ under Merrick Garland for taking the initiative that they've taken. There is active litigation happening around the country. And I applaud all of those folks, in particular those who are lending their pro bono expertise to this issue. As I said at the beginning of our conversation, we have to address this issue on many levels. And it will be litigation, legislation. It will be activating the people. It will be about informing the people about their rights, organizing, registering folks to vote.
KHALID: The vice president also said it's important to educate voters about laws that would potentially restrict the right to vote.
HARRIS: I do believe that in many of these states, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so that they won't vote. And this is then about attempts to take the power from the people. And we all need to stand and say, we will not allow this to happen on our watch.
PFEIFFER: Asma, because you cover the White House, you'll be covering this for quite a while. I'm wondering what sort of your main thought was leaving this interview about the administration's efforts to combat voter restrictions?
KHALID: Well, I think it'll be key to see how they convinced people to participate in the very elections that they're also saying are under threat. You know, we heard the president yesterday refer to some of the GOP changes as, quote, "election subversion." But I will say, Sacha, as this is going on, they're going to continue to face pressure from Democrats on the left who want changes to the filibuster, and who, frankly, don't think that speeches are voter registration drives are enough.
PFEIFFER: Asma Khalid, thank you very much.
KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.