ATLANTA -- Pounding his fist for emphasis, President Joe Biden on Tuesday challenged senators to "stand against voter suppression," urging them to change Senate rules in order to pass voting rights legislation that Republicans are blocking from debate and votes.
Biden told a crowd in Atlanta that he'd been having quiet conversations with senators for months over the two bills -- a lack of progress that has brought him criticism from activists in his own party.
"I'm tired of being quiet!" he shouted. "I will not yield. I will not flinch."
Current rules require 60 votes to advance most legislation -- a threshold that Senate Democrats can't meet alone because they only have a 50-50 majority with Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. Republicans unanimously oppose the voting rights measures.
Not all Democrats are on board with changing the filibuster rules. Conservative West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin threw cold water on the idea Tuesday, saying he believes any changes should be made with substantial Republican buy-in.
And even if Democrats clear the obstacles to passage of the voting rights laws, it could be too late to counter widespread voting restrictions passed in 19 states after former President Donald Trump's 2020 loss and his claims -- embraced by many in the GOP -- that the election was stolen through voter fraud.
"This matters to all of us," Biden insisted. "The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against him, simple as that."
Biden spent decades in the Senate, and he spoke of how much it's changed for the worse, calling it "a shell of its former self. It gives me no satisfaction to say that as an institutionalist." He spoke of an era not long ago when an issue like voting rights would never have been so rancorously partisan.
He recalled working with notorious segregationist lawmakers in the Senate to get legislation passed and then signed into law by Republican presidents. But now the filibuster has been used rampantly to block even the debating of some legislation.
With Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., setting next Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a deadline to either pass voting legislation or consider revising the rules around the chamber's filibuster blocking device, Biden is expected to evoke the memories of the U.S. Capitol riot a year ago in more forcefully aligning himself with the voting rights effort.
Biden told his audience: "The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation."
"Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield," he declared. "I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign, yes, and domestic! And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?"
Biden also paid tribute to civil rights battles past -- visiting Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once held forth from the pulpit. He stood quietly as Martin Luther King III placed a wreath at the crypt of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. And he referenced civil rights battles of the 1960s in his speech on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.
Harris spoke before Biden, warning that a barrage of laws making it tougher to vote means there is "a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal."
"There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voter lines," she said to cheers.
When asked what he was risking politically by speaking out when there aren't enough votes to change the rules, Biden said: "I risk not saying what I believe. That's what I risk. This is one of those defining moments. It really is. People are going to be judged on where were they before and where were they after the vote. History is going to judge us."
Voting rights advocates in Georgia and nationwide are increasingly anxious about what may happen in 2022 and beyond. They view the changes in many states as a subtler form of ballot restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes once used to disenfranchise Black voters, a key Democratic constituency.
Republicans who have fallen in line behind Trump's election misinformation are promoting efforts to influence elections by installing sympathetic leaders in local election posts and by backing for elective office some of those who participated in the riot at the U.S. Capitol a year ago.
Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press.