Clyburn calls for full-court press on voting rights

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House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) arrives for a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) arrives for a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.


Congress's most powerful Black lawmaker called Thursday for President Biden and Democratic leaders to launch a full-court press to protect voting rights ahead of the midterm elections, warning that a failure to counter new state restrictions would both disenfranchise minority voters and erode Democratic support at the polls.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, acknowledged that with the Senate filibuster intact, legislation designed to protect voting rights faces long odds. But when asked about alternative strategies for shoring up voter protections - including unilateral action by President Biden and the allocation of new election funding from Congress - Clyburn was terse.

"All of the above," the No. 3 House Democrat said during an interview with The Washington Post.

Clyburn said he has not spoken directly to Biden about the possibility of executive actions, but he was quick to point out that both the Emancipation Proclamation, under President Lincoln, and the move to integrate the U.S. Armed Forces, under former President Truman, were both unilateral efforts with enormous historic implications.

"The executive order can do a lot, and if that's what the president wants to use, I don't oppose that," Clyburn said. "In fact, I would propose it."

The comments arrive as a number of states - virtually all of them led by Republicans - race to adopt tougher voting laws in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, which former President Trump has falsely claimed was fraudulent. A new GOP bill in Arizona, for instance, would empower the legislature to overturn election results across the state.

In response, House Democrats this month passed legislation designed to counter those restrictions and make it easier, not harder, for citizens to vote. Supporters, led by the Congressional Black Caucus, consider the bill crucial to ensuring fair elections. But the bill has hit a wall in the Senate in the form of a Republican filibuster.

GOP leaders have defended their opposition, saying that the 2020 elections ran smoothly, so there's no need for federal intervention.

"[In] a recent survey, 94 percent of Americans thought it was easy to vote," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said recently. "This is not a problem."

Democrats are wondering, then, why so many Republican states are rushing to adopt tougher laws in the name of voter security.

"It seems very telling that somehow making it easier for people to cast votes, Trump believes, is advantageous only to Democrats," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday in a forum with CQ Roll Call.

The debate comes as Democrats face increasingly tough odds of keeping control of the House in November's midterms, and as Biden's approval rating among Black voters has plummeted in recent months.

Clyburn had warned throughout the past year that it would be politically "catastrophic" for Democrats if they allowed the filibuster to sink efforts to adopt new voting rights protections. He had urged Biden to press Senate Democrats - particularly the centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) - to support a carve-out to the filibuster rule that would be narrowly targeted to voting rights legislation.

Biden this month endorsed that strategy, which Senate Democratic leaders attempted last week. It was blocked by Manchin and Sinema.

Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden in the South Carolina primary helped to revive a sinking campaign, suggested Thursday that the Democrats' failure to reform the filibuster for the sake of passing voting rights protections is a large reason for the Biden's sinking numbers among Black voters.

"The fact of the matter is: people have certain expectations," he told The Post. "When Joe Biden's campaign was in need of energy - he had lost three primaries coming into South Carolina - and I thought that certain things needed to happen to get that campaign back on track and on a successful journey."

"I talk to people, and I listen to people, and I try to give my party the benefit of these discussions," he added. "And so I knew that we would suffer significantly if we failed to do something about the filibuster. Now we have failed to do anything about the filibuster."

In a subsequent interview with The Hill, Clyburn defended Biden's track record, noting that he's passed groundbreaking legislation, including massive funding for infrastructure projects, while nominating a historic number of Black women to the federal bench. The president's standing among Black voters has fallen, he added, because those voters are unaware of those accomplishments.

"You've gone from nine-out-of-10 to six-out-of-10 because we have failed to make people aware of what this man has done," Clyburn said. "He has just nominated eight black women to circuit court judgeships, which equals all the presidents before him. Nobody's writing about that. He has [seated] 42 people to the bench, the highest of any president's first term, ever. Nobody's writing about that."

Clyburn vowed that the approval numbers will rise again, not least because Biden has vowed to name a Black woman to replace Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court.

"We will turn them around," he said. "He's going to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court, just like he when pledged to do it then he turned the numbers around in South Carolina."

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