Top Senate Republican blasts Biden's 'rant' on voter rights, vows to oppose bill

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By Richard Cowan and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell on Wednesday blasted President Joe Biden's push for a voting-rights bill, underscoring the difficulty Biden's Democrats face in trying to steer legislation through a Congress they narrowly control.

Biden has called for Democrats to jettison the chamber's longstanding "filibuster https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/us-senate-democrats-mull-ending-filibuster-pass-voting-rights-reform-2022-01-11" rule requiring 60 of the 100 senators to agree to advance most legislation, a move that McConnell said would irreparably damage the Senate.

"The president's rant yesterday was incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office," McConnell said on the Senate floor, referring to Biden's speech in Atlanta on Tuesday in which he appealed for voting-rights legislation and called Republicans cowardly for not supporting it.

McConnell accused the president of giving "a deliberately divisive speech that was designed to pull our country further apart."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the administration was disappointed by McConnell's opposition to the bill.

"It is even more disappointing that someone who has supported and advocated for voting rights in the past ... is on the other side of this argument now," Psaki said.

Biden plans to make a personal plea to Senate Democrats on Thursday, urging them to agree on changing or eliminating the filibuster so they can pass the voting rights bill.

Former President Donald Trump's false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of fraud inspired a wave of new restrictions on voting in Republican-controlled states last year.

Democrats see their voting rights bills as a last chance to counter those ahead of the Nov. 8 elections, when they run the risk of losing their razor-thin majorities in at least one chamber of Congress.

Since Trump's defeat, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Critics say these measures target minorities, who vote in greater proportions for Democrats.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act together would make Election Day a holiday, expand access to mail-in voting and strengthen U.S. Justice Department oversight of local election jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.

"Twelve months ago the president said that politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path," McConnell said. "But yesterday he poured a giant can of gasoline on the fire."

Republicans argue that the bills Democrats are proposing are an infringement of states' rights to run their elections. They come as Trump supporters https://www.reuters.com/world/us/fundraising-surges-races-us-election-oversight-roles-report-says-2022-01-12 who have embraced his false claims of election fraud are running for offices that could give them oversight over local elections. Democrats and election analysts have raised concerns that they could use those posts to influence https://www.reuters.com/world/us/backers-trumps-false-fraud-claims-seek-control-next-us-elections-2021-09-22 election outcomes.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday outlined a strategy to ensure a Senate floor debate on voting rights, after three separate attempts last year were stymied by Republicans.

Under the plan, outlined in a Schumer memo to fellow Democrats that was seen by Reuters, the House of Representatives will soon repackage two election-related bills into one and pass it. It would then go to the Senate under a special procedure preventing Republicans from blocking debate.

"We will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation – something that Republicans have thus far denied," Schumer wrote in the memo.

But if Republicans remain united in opposition, even that bill will not pass the Senate unless all Democrats agree to change the filibuster, he said.

Centrist Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are opposed to the idea, saying it would cause turmoil with every change of control in Washington.

Schumer has set a deadline for a vote on the election reforms by the Jan. 17 holiday honoring the slain civil rights hero Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

EROSION OF FILIBUSTER

For at least a decade, worries about atrophy in the Senate have led to calls for revising or scrapping the filibuster, which allows a minority of senators to block bills.

In 2013, Democrats, fed up with then-President Barack Obama's nominees languishing amid Republican filibusters, scrapped the 60-vote majority needed to confirm most federal judges and administration appointees. Four years later, Republicans ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, clearing the way for Trump to install three conservative justices during his presidency.

That 6-3 conservative court has agreed to take up major cases this year on the hot-button issues of abortion and guns that could dramatically change American life.

Biden had previously opposed changing the filibuster rule but more recently has argued that voting rights reforms were urgently needed even if it meant weakening that procedure.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Jeff Mason and Moira Warburton; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Scott Malone, Franklin Paul, Aurora Ellis and Cynthia Osterman)

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