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The Lead with Jake Tapper
VP Harris Speaking Before Biden Speech On Election Reform; President Biden Delivering Remarks On Election Reform. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired January 11, 2022 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: That's a fun moment. That's a fun moment. Although, I am pretty sure that Senator Kaine will not be caught without granola or trail mix or jerky or something in his car.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: No, all you need is Dr. Pepper and an orange. Totally life-sustaining foods. That's what the astronauts should take to space.
BLACKWELL: You need more than that.
THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.
CAMEROTA: You need Jake Tapper.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We're going to start with breaking news in the politics lead. At any moment, we expect President Joe Biden to begin making his biggest push yet for election reform. He'll take the stage in Atlanta, Georgia, in a congressional district that used to belong to the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis who died in 2020.
The president will be joined today by a group of elected officials advocating for what they call the right to vote. We know changes to the Senate's filibuster rules will be a major focus of today's speech because no Republicans support the bills Biden is pushing. So he needs to eliminate the Republicans' ability to filibuster in order to get them passed. Not every Democrat is on board with that change to the filibuster rules.
Not at the speech, arguably, the biggest election reform activist in the Democratic Party, Georgia's gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams. Stacey Abrams who cited a scheduling conflict.
There is, however, a coalition of high-profile progressive activists who say they'll not be there because they're sick of White House photo ops. They want action on the issue, they say.
Let's get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny who is traveling with President Biden in Atlanta.
And, Jeff, we're expecting some strong words from Biden aimed directly at Senate Democrats.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that's right.
President Biden will be delivering these remarks just in a short period of time. Behind me here, between Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. The presidents of the college were speaking moments ago and said this is sacred ground, talking about the deep history here with Dr. Martin Luther King who studied on these very grounds.
And President Biden is going to really talk about that history. He was meeting with the King family earlier. He stopped by Ebenezer Baptist Church as well. So, the White House picked this location for a reason. Yes, some local groups have criticized this as a photo-op, but it's a serious speech.
And, Jake, there are several hundred people here. Some are elected officials. But many are not. There are many students here as well and really a pantheon of civil rights leaders as well.
And President Biden is going to use this audience to make his case for now is the time for voting rights reform, talking about two specific bills in the Senate that have been stalled in the Senate. He was asked just a short time ago as he left Ebenezer Baptist Church if there are the votes there. He said keep the faith.
So, this will be the -- certainly the most substantial speech he's given on voting rights yet. The question is, is anything different in Washington? Jake?
TAPPER: So Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.
Republicans in state legislatures around the country have been, since the 2020 election, tightening election laws, in many cases making it more difficult to vote. In some states, they have given more power to partisans and less to election officials. A lot of Trump believers in the big lie have been out there campaigning. Democrats say that they're pushing these two major pieces of legislation to counteract some of the Republican measures.
Let's dive into what Biden is specifically pushing. The first bill is called the Freedom to Vote Act. It's nearly 600 pages. It's a less ambitious version of the House's bill called the For the People Act. Senator Joe Manchin is the most conservative Democrat probably, was among its original co-sponsors, hoping a scaled back version could attract some Republican support. But it has not.
Now this legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act, would make it easier for all Americans to register to vote. It would make Election Day a public holiday. It would require states to have at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections with some exceptions. It will allow all voters the ability to ask for and use mail-in ballots without needing an excuse that the bill would boost security on voting systems, overhaul how congressional districts are redrawn and it would impose new disclosures on donations to outside groups active in political campaigns.
Now, the second bill, Senate Democrats are pushing is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It's even narrower in scope because this bill is less about the mechanics of voting. It's more about preventing discrimination against voters of color. Democrats say it's a direct response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted in their view a central pillar of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
All 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus support both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The problem is Senate rules, right now, require 60 votes to proceed to a debate and then a vote and there are not ten Senate Republicans willing to allow a debate on either bill. Even though one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, said she would support the John Lewis bill. Democrats are still shy another nine votes there, too.
So, let's talk about this while we wait for President Biden to speak. We have Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York joining us.
Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
Your colleagues Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have repeatedly made clear they oppose getting rid of the filibuster and they're not alone. Senators Mark Kelly of Arizona, Chris Coons of Delaware also have reservations.
Isn't the president pushing for this change when it's realistically not likely to happen, setting him up for another defeat as with the Build Back Better Act?
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): Things change. Having this debate is really important. Our democracy is the most important thing that we need to fight for. We are at an existential risk right now. We have legislatures around the country that are trying to undermine people's right to vote.
Having this speech by President Biden in Georgia is fitting. The Georgia legislature and the governor in Georgia are doing everything they can to abrogate people's right to vote, their basic civil rights and civil liberties. And so I hope that we get these votes this week. Senator Schumer puts both those bills that you mentioned on the Senate floor and that we call these votes.
It's important to show that Republicans do not want to protect people's rights to vote. And I think we should keep calling the votes. And I think it's important for Senate Democrats to continue to talk with one another about the urgency of the crisis we're in right now and how existential this is to our democracy.
TAPPER: Senator Gillibrand, I'm sorry. I have to interrupt. As you know, Vice President Harris and Joe Biden, the president, are speaking right now. They're a little late. Let's listen in.
KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One year -- yes, please do sit.
Last week, one year after a violent mob breached the United States Capitol, the president of the United States and I spoke from its hallowed halls and we made clear, we swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And we will. We will fight.
We will fight to safeguard our democracy. We will fight to secure our most fundamental freedom, the freedom to vote. And that is why we have come to Atlanta today, to the cradle of the civil rights movement, to the district that was represented by the great Congressman John Lewis --
On the eve of the birthday of reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
More than 55 years ago, men, women and children marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand the ballot. And when they arrived at the state capitol in Alabama, Dr. King decried what he called normalcy -- the normalcy, the complacency that was denying people the freedom to vote.
The only normalcy anyone should accept, Dr. King said, is the normalcy of justice. And his words resonate today. Over the past few years, we have seen so many anti-voter laws that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal, a danger of being complacent, complicit.
Anti-voter laws are not new in our nation, but we must not be deceived into thinking they are normal. We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it more difficult for students to vote is normal. We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it illegal to help a voter with a disability vote by mail is normal.
There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines.
And I have met with voters in Georgia.
I have heard your outrage about the anti-voter law here. And how many voters will likely be kept from voting. And Georgia is not alone. Across our nation, anti-voter laws could make it difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote.
That is 1 out of 6 people in our country. And the proponents of these laws are not only putting in place obstacles to the ballot box. They are also working to interfere with our elections, to get the outcomes they want and to discredit those that they don't. That is not how a democracy should work.
My fellow Americans, do not succumb to those who would dismiss this assault on voting rights as an unfounded threat, who would wave this off as a partisan game. The assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American in every community in every political party. And if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.
As Dr. King said, the battle is in our hands. And today, the battle is in the hands of the leaders of the American people, those in particular that the American people sent to the United States Senate. Two landmark bills sit before the United States Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
And these two bills represent the first real opportunity to secure the freedom to vote since the United States Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act nearly a decade ago. We do not know when I'll have this opportunity again. Senate Republicans have exploited arcane rules to block these bills.
And let us be clear, the Constitution of the United States gives the Congress the power to pass legislation and nowhere -- nowhere does the Constitution give a minority the right to unilaterally block legislation. The American people have waited long enough. The Senate must act.
And the bottom line is this: Years from now our children and grandchildren, they will ask us about this moment. They will look back on this time, and they will ask us, not about how we felt. They will ask us, what did we do?
We cannot tell them that we let a Senate rule stand in the way of our most fundamental freedom. Instead, let us tell them that we stood together as people of conscience and courage. Let us tell them we acted with the urgency that this moment demands. And let us tell them we secured the freedom to vote, that we ensured free and fair elections, and we safeguarded our democracy for them and their children.
And now, my fellow Americans, it is my honor to introduce a leader who is unwavering in his commitment to defend our democracy and ensure the ballot prevails, the president of the United States of America, Joe Biden.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In our lives and the lives of our nation -- the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed.
They stop time. They rip away the trivial from the essential. And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy.
In the words of Scripture, they remind us to "hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate."
Last week, President Harris and I stood in the United States Capitol to observe one of those "before and after" moments in American history: January 6th insurrection on the citadel of our democracy.
Today, we come to Atlanta -- the cradle of civil rights -- to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy.
We stand on the grounds that connect Clark Atlanta -- Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and near Spelman College -- the home of generations of advocates, activists, educators and preachers; young people, just like the students here, who have done so much to build a better America.
We visited the sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church and paused to pray at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King, and spent time with their family. And here in the district -- as was pointed out -- represented and reflected the life of beloved friend, John Lewis.
In their lifetimes, time stopped when a bomb blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and murdered four little girls.
They stopped when John and many others seeking justice were beaten and bloodied while crossing the bridge at Selma named after the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
They stopped -- time stopped, and they forced the country to confront the hard truths and to act -- to act to keep the promise of America alive: the promise that holds that we're all created equal but, more importantly, deserve to be treated equally. And from those moments of darkness and despair came light and hope.
Democrats, Republicans, and independents worked to pass the historic Civil Rights Act and the voting rights legislation. And each successive generation continued that ongoing work.
But then the violent mob of January 6th, 2021, empowered and encouraged by a defeated former president, sought to win through violence what he had lost at the ballot box, to impose the will of the mob, to overturn a free and fair election, and, for the first time -- the first time in American history, they -- to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
They failed. They failed.
But democracy's -- but democracy's visi -- victory was not certain, nor is democracy's future. That's why we're here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup -- a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people -- by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud, and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people.
They want chaos to reign. We want the people to rule.
But let me be clear: This is not about me or Vice President Harris or our party; it's about all of us. It's about the people. It's about America.
Hear me plainly: The battle for the soul of America is not over. We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy.
You know, for the right to vote and to have that vote counted is democracy's threshold liberty. Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, anything is possible.
But while the denial of fair and free elections is un-democratic, it is not unprecedented.
Black Americans were denied full citizenship and voting rights until 1965. Women were denied the right to vote until just 100 years ago. The United States Supreme Court, in recent years, has weakened the Voting Rights Act.
And now, the defeated former president and his supporters use the big lie about the 2020 election to fuel torrent and torment and anti- voting laws -- new laws designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections.
Here in Georgia, for years, you've done the hard work of democracy: registering voters, educating voters, getting voters to the polls. You've built a broad coalition of voters: Black, white, Latino, Asian American, urban, suburban, rural, working class, and middle class.
And it's worked: You've changed the state by bringing more people, legally, to the polls.
That's how you won the historic elections of Senator Raphael Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff.
You did it -- you did it the right way, the democratic way. And what's been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia? Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way. To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem. So they're putting up obstacles.
For example, voting by mail is a safe and convenient way to get more people to vote, so they're making it harder for you to vote by mail.
The same way, I might add, in the 2020 Election, President Trump voted from behind the desk in the White House -- in Florida.
Dropping your ballots off to secure drop boxes -- it's safe, it's convenient, and you get more people to vote. So they're limiting the number of drop boxes and the hours you can use them.
Taking away the options has a predictable effect: longer lines at the polls, lines that can last for hours. You've seen it with your own eyes. People get tired and they get hungry.
When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal -- think of this -- I mean, it's 2020, and now '22, going into that election -- it makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote.
What in the hell -- heck are we talking about?
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
I mean, think about it. That's not America. That's what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote.
And here's how they plan to subvert the election: The Georgia Republican Party, the state legislature has now given itself the power to make it easier for partisan actors -- their cronies -- to remove local election officials.
Think about that. What happened in the last election? The former president and allies pursued, threatened, and intimidated state and local election officials.
Election workers -- ordinary citizens -- were subject to death threats, menacing phone calls, people stalking them in their homes.
Remember what the defeated former president said to the highest- ranking election official -- a Republican -- in this state? He said, quote, I just want to find 11,780 votes.
He didn't say that part.
He didn't say, "Count the votes."
He said, "find votes" that he needed to win. He failed because of the courageous officials -- Democrats, Republicans -- who did their duty and upheld the law.
But with this new law in Georgia, his loyal -- his loyalists will be placed in charge of state elections.
What is that going to mean? Well, the chances for chaos and subversion are even greater as partisans seek the result they want -- no matter what the voters have said, no matter what the count. The votes of nearly 5 million Georgians will be up for grabs if that law holds.
It's not just here in Georgia. Last year alone, 19 states not proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights. There were nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of state legislatures tried to pass. And now, Republican legislators in several states have already announced plans to escalate the onslaught this year.
Their endgame? To turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion -- something states can respect or ignore.
Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion. It's no longer about who gets to vote; it's about making it harder to vote. It's about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.
It's not hyperbole; this is a fact. Look, this matters to all of us. The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them. Simple as that. The facts won't matter; your vote won't matter. They'll just decide what they want and then do it.
That's the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies. We must be vigilant.
And the world is watching. I know the majority of the world leaders -- the good and the bad ones, adversaries and allies alike. They're watching American democracy and seeing whether we can meet this moment. And that's not hyperbole.
When I showed up at the G7 with seven other world leaders -- there were a total of nine present -- Vice President Harris and I have spent our careers doing this work -- I said, "America is back." And the response was, "For how long?" "For how long?"
As someone who's worked in foreign policy my whole life, I never thought I would ever hear our allies say something like that.
Over the past year, we've directed federal agencies to promote access to voting, led by the Vice President. We've appointed top civil rights advocates to help the U.S. Department of Justice, which has doubled its voting rights enforcement staff.
And today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act.
Pass it now which would prevent voter suppression so that here in Georgia there's full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes during enough hours so that you can bring food and water as well to people waiting in line.
The Freedom to Vote Act takes on election subversion to protect nonpartisan electors officials, who are doing their job, from intimidation and interference.
It would get dark money out of politics, create fairer district maps and ending partisan gerrymandering.
Look, it's also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
I've been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months. I'm tired of being quiet!
Folks, it'll restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act of '65 -- the one President Johnson signed after John Lewis was beaten, nearly killed on Bloody Sunday, only to have the Supreme Court weaken it multiple times over the past decade.
Restoring the Voting Rights Act would mean the Justice Department can stop discriminatory laws before they go into effect -- before they go into effect.
The vice president and I have supported voting rights bills since day one of this administration. But each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way. Republicans oppose even debating the issue. You hear me?
I've been around the Senate a long time. I was Vice President for eight years. I've never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice that's ready to speak for justice now.
When I was a senator, including when I headed up the Judiciary Committee, I helped reauthorize the Voting Act three times. We held hearings. We debated. We voted. I was able to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.
In 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate with votes from 16 current sitting Republicans in this United States Senate. Sixteen of them voted to extend it.
The last year I was chairman, as some of my friends sitting down here will tell you, Strom Thurmond voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. Strom Thurmond.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wow.
BIDEN: You can say that again: "Wow." You have no idea how damn hard -- how darn hard I worked on that one.
But, folks, then it was signed into law, the last time, by President George W. Bush.
You know, when we got voting rights extended in the 1980s, as I've said, even Thurmond supported it. Think about that. The man who led the longest filibu -- one of the longest filibusters in history in the United States Senate in 1957 against the Voting Rights Act. The man who led and sided with the old Southern Bulls in the United States Senate to perpetuate segregation in this nation. Even Strom Thurmond came to support voting rights.
But Republicans today can't and won't. Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America's right to vote. Not one. Not one.
We have 50-50 in the United States Senate. That means we have 51 presidents. You all think I'm kidding.
I've been pretty good at working with senators my whole career. But, man, when you got 51 presidents, it gets harder. Any one can change the outcome.
Sadly, the United States Senate -- designed to be the world's greatest deliberative body -- has been rendered a shell of its former self. It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate.
But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote.
Let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.
You know, last year, if I'm not mistaken, the filibuster was used 154 times. The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship. But it's also been used to obstruct -- including and especially obstruct civil rights and voting rights. And when it was used, senators traditionally used to have to stand and speak at their desks for however long it took, and sometimes it took hours. And when they sat down, if no one immediately stood up, anyone could call for a vote or the debate ended.
But that doesn't happen today. Senators no longer even have to speak one word. The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart.
The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.
While the state legislatures' assault on voting rights is simple -- all you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority -- in the United States Senate, it takes a supermajority: 60 votes, even to get a vote -- instead of 50 -- to protect the right to vote.
State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities. If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.
Today I'm making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.
When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate.
I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.
And I make it with an appeal to my Republican colleagues, to those Republicans who believe in the rule of law: Restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights.
The people who restored it, who abided by it in the past were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. They all supported the Voting Rights Act.
Don't let the Republican Party morph into something else. Restore the institution of the Senate the way it was designed to be.
Senate rules were just changed to raise the debt ceiling so we wouldn't renege on our debt for the first time in our history and prevent an economic crisis. That was done by a simple majority.
As Senator Warnock said a few weeks ago in a powerful speech: If we change the rules to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, we should be able to change the rules to protect the heart and soul of our democracy.
(APPLAUSE) He was right.
In the days that followed John Lewis's death, there was an outpouring of praise and support across the political spectrum.
But as we stand here today, it isn't enough just to praise his memory. We must translate eulogy into action. We need to follow John Lewis's footsteps. We need to support the bill in his name.
Just a few days ago, we talked about -- up in the Congress and in the White House -- the event coming up shortly to celebrate Dr. King's birthday. And Americans of all stripes will praise him for the content of his character.
But as Dr. King's family said before, it's not enough to praise their father. They even said: On this holiday, don't celebrate his birthday unless you're willing to support what he lived for and what he died for.
The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation's history.
We will choose -- the issue is: Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?
I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies -- foreign and, yes, domestic.
And the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand? Every senator -- Democrat, Republican, and independent -- will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages.
Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no? That's the question they'll answer. Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no? Will you stand for democracy? Yes or no?
And here's one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters' rights. And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.
So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?
At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the -- on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?
This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.
And if you do that, you will not be alone. That's because the struggle to protect voting rights has never been borne by one group alone.
We saw Freedom Riders of every race. Leaders of every faith marching arm in arm. And, yes, Democrats and Republicans in Congress of the United States and in the presidency.
I did not live the struggle of Douglass, Tubman, King, Lewis, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and countless others -- known and unknown.
I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds. But I walked other grounds. Because I'm so damn old, I was there as well.
You think I'm kidding, man.
It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested. Anyway --
But their struggles here -- they were the ones that opened my eyes as a high school student in the late -- in the late '50s and early '60s. They got me more engaged in the work of my life.
And what we're talking about today is rooted in the very idea of America -- the idea that Annell Ponder, who graduated from Clark Atlanta, captured in a single word. She was a teacher and librarian who was also an unyielding champion of voting rights.
In 1963 -- when I was just starting college at university -- after registering voters in Mississippi, she was pulled off a bus, arrested, and jailed, where she was brutally beaten.
In her cell, next to her, was Fannie Lou Hamer, who described the beating this way, and I quote: I could hear the sounds of the licks and the horrible screams. They beat her, I don't know for how long. And after a while, she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
Annell Ponder's friends visited her the next day. Her face was badly swollen. She could hardly talk.
But she managed to whisper one word: Freedom. "Freedom" -- the only word she whispered.
After nearly 250 years since our founding, that singular idea still echoes. But it's up to all of us to make sure it never fades, especially the students here -- your generation that just started voting -- as there are those who are trying to take away that vote you just started to be able to exercise.
But the giants we honor today were your age when they made clear who we must be as a nation. Not a joke. Think about it. In the early '60s, they were sitting where you're sitting. They were you. And like them, you give me much hope for the future.
Before and after in our lives -- and in the life of the nation -- democracy is who we are, who we must be -- now and forever. So, let's stand in this breach together. Let's love good, establish justice in the gate.
And remember, as I said, there is one -- this is one of those defining moments in American history: Each of those who vote will be remembered by class after class, in the '50s and '60s -- the 2050s and '60s. Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote.
There's no escape. So, let's get back to work.
As my fa -- my grandfather Finnegan used to say every time I walked out the door in Scranton, he'd say, "Joey, keep the faith." Then he'd say, "No, Joey, spread it."
Let's spread the faith and get this done.
May God bless you all. And may God protect the sacred right to vote.
Thank you. I mean it. Let's go get this done. Thank you.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, President Biden and Vice President Harris in Atlanta, Georgia. A speech on election reform and what it's going to take to get two specific pieces of legislation, the freedom to vote act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act through the Senate.
Demanding a change of the filibuster rule so the bills can pass without any Republican support.
There are not only Republicans but Democrats in the Senate who do not like that idea.
Let's go to CNN's Jeff Zeleny traveling with the president in Atlanta.
And, Jeff, President Biden depicted this struggle, which is about two pieces of legislation and a major controversial change to the Senate rules in very stark terms. Martin Luther King versus segregationist King George Wallace, Abraham Lincoln or president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Will that language work convincing the skeptics on his own side he needs to convince like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it's hard to imagine that this language will work among the skeptics like you said. It's hard to imagine that really any moment of history that the president invoked. And he invoked many of them, really casting this in the starkest terms about democracy. That this would change the minds of Joe Manchin.
But it was a speech designed to really make clear where he stands. He said I'm tired of being quiet. It was his speech directed directly at the base support. Of course, he's been accused of being too quiet on this. He talked about his love of the Senate and also talked about the flexibility of the Senate, specifically pointing out that last month the senators came together to change rules temporarily to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
And he compared the ability of when the Senate wants to do something, they can indeed make a change. He talked about how democracy is certainly as important as restoring the full faith and credit of the government. Jake, it's unclear, in fact, unlikely, at least from my ear, listening to this speech on this historic sacred grounds here, no matter how much history is behind it, that this would change the minds of Joe Manchin.
Now the question is, can he be persuaded in some other way, can they come together and get some type of smaller act done. He talked about Republican presidents before who voted to extend the Voting Rights Act. Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush. Certainly so much history in this.
The question, will it change the present day? That is very, very uncertain.
TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny in Atlanta with the president and vice president. Let's talk about this all with our panel.
Abby Phillip, first of all, welcome back from your maternity leave. Happy to have you.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Thank you.
TAPPER: Let's start with the fact that Biden just made, without question, his strongest, starkest pitch yet for election reform. There are a lot of activists, voting rights activists, progressive activists who have wanted him to be sounding like this since he took office in January 2021. In fact, some of them boycotted today because they're sick of White House photo ops.
PHILLIP: Yeah, I mean, the problem, though is that right at this moment it's kind of too late. I think what activists wanted was for Biden to make this issue priority number one. To use the political capital that he had when he came into office to do this, perhaps instead of infrastructure even. And he didn't do that.
And so doing this full-throated endorsement of voting reforms is, in the minds of activists, good but perhaps too little, too late. Now I do think it's notable that Biden did sort of drop a little note
there saying he's been quietly talking to Democrats and Republicans on the hill for the last month or so about this. He said he's not being quiet anymore, but the question is what has come out of those talks? What has he learned as a result of those conversations? Because from what we are hearing on Capitol Hill, from our correspondents and others, is that there is no movement either on the Democratic side or on the Republican side on these things.
TAPPER: Yeah. And we should note, Bakari, there are 50 votes, Democratic votes, for this -- both pieces of election reform legislation. But there are not 50 votes, plus Kamala Harris, the tiebreaker, the vice president, to change the Senate rules to get rid of the filibuster which requires 60 votes. Manchin and Sinema, not to mention Mark Kelly from Arizona, and maybe even a few others like Chris Coons have said they have a lot of concerns about this.
Do you think today's speech would have any impact on them?
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, that is the million-dollar question. And for many of us, you know, I went to Morehouse College where he gave that speech. I stayed in Graves Hall just off to the right from where he gave that speech in the same dormitory Dr. King stayed in.
And Dr. King talked about the fierce urgency of now. And many of us wanted Joe Biden to have this urgency sooner because this would be or possibly be something that could get done. And the question remains, you know, will this change those minds?
Look, I think he framed it perfectly. The speech -- the tone was great. The speech was good. The timing is what most people are concerned with, as well as the call to action.
But this is as clear as I can be, Jake. Chris Coons is a friend of mine. Chris Coons, Jon Tester, Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin want to be on the side of George Wallace, want to be on the side of Strom Thurmond and many others who stood in the way of civil rights, even Strom Thurmond came around on voting rights, but if they want to go down in history as standing on the side of segregationists and those who oppose people who look like me having free and fair access to the ballot, then we'll remember them as such. This is that type of moment, and this is the urgency we have to have.
TAPPER: Gloria, I think Bakari's response to the speech is very much in keeping with Biden's tone, President Biden's tone. But what I've heard from Democratic senators that are concerned about changing the rule is, what happens when Republicans take over the chamber and because we have gotten rid of this precedent, all of a sudden, Republicans with a narrow majority of one vote or tie vote plus the vice president, whatever, are able to pass a nationwide abortion ban or change voting rights even worse --
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. TAPPER: And that's their concern. But at the same time, they'll be
hearing from individuals like President Biden and Bakari.
BORGER: That's right. Look, what Biden did was kind of dipped his toe in the water or thought he was dipping his toe in the water on getting rid of the filibuster as he put it for this.
This was a big step for Biden who has been in favor of the filibuster as you know. Senator for 36 years. He always supported it. Thought it worked pretty well. Talked about now how the Senate is effectively a failure.
And so, what Democrats are saying is, if you're not going to do it to preserve democracy, when are you going to do it? And that is why you saw the president in this speech talk about January 6th and how that failed and how, as the former president failed, and tying it to voting rights because that is another part of preserving democracy.
And so I think their answer would be, what's more important than preserving our democratic system?
TAPPER: So, Ramesh, on the other side of the aisle, Republicans -- let's take the state of Texas which passed one of these controversial election reform bills. Making it tougher to vote in terms of how many days early voting can go on, how many drop boxes there are, et cetera?
By all stretches, Republicans had a great election day in Texas. They defeated a bunch of Democrats. Won a bunch of state representative races. Donald Trump won Texas.
There are people who might look at that and say why are Republicans trying to curtail the ability of people to vote if they did so well?
RAMESH PONNURU, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think that our system of casting and counting votes doesn't get nearly enough credit from anybody. What we saw in 2020 was under extraordinarily difficult, new circumstances, with the pandemic, we had high turnout. We didn't, in fact, see an enormous amount of voter fraud. And we didn't see an enormous amount of voter suppression.
But that -- those sort of boogieman have been the reasons why the electoral system just keeps getting discredited and criticized by our political leaders and nobody is willing to stand up for what was in fact, quite a success story. And now we have a debate in which you've got state-level Republicans who are pushing partisan legislation that whatever its other merits tends to make the Democrats think they can't trust the system. And now you have Democrats wanting to pass a national bill on a partisan vote and change the rules to do it, and I cannot imagine a better way of increasing distrust in our political system beyond what we already have.
TAPPER: Abby, is there any room in the U.S. Senate for some of the more level-headed Democrats and Republicans to come together and pass something, some legislation that would clean up the electoral reform -- the Electoral Count Act, which Donald Trump tried to abuse and exploit when Mike Pence was there -- hang Mike Pence, that whole thing -- as well as making sure there are some basic voter protections.
Or is it just so partisan with one side saying, you're trying to steal the election. The other side saying, you're trying to steal the election and there's no room for compromise?
PHILLIP: I think that there's some room on the Electoral Count Act. There's perhaps a recognition that what is the most, you know, the scariest proposition that we all face is that there are all of these, you know, election deniers and big lie perpetrators who are already in positions where they could try to overturn a legal election in this country.
And that shouldn't be possible, frankly. I think there are Democrats and Republicans who agree on that.
Now the question about voter protection, I don't know that Democrats and Republicans even agree on what that means. So if there's anything that will move forward, it will have to be extraordinarily limited in nature. I think even the Voting Rights Act, the John Lewis Act that restores the voting rights act is probably dead on the water because Republicans have moved very far away from the idea of the voting rights act being a bipartisan piece of legislation.
TAPPER: Let's bring in Democratic Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester of the small wonder state, Delaware. She's in Atlanta with President Biden.
Congresswoman, last week on the anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, you appeared live on CNN. You gave a very heartbreaking account of what you went through that day. Moments ago, President Biden invoked the insurrection as part of his argument to pass election reform.
But realistically, without changing Senate rules, which is doesn't seem like there are enough Democrats on board with to happen, those bills are not going to pass. So is it time to start looking for a compromise, something that can get ten Republican votes in the Senate?
REP. LISA BLUNT ROCHESTER (D-DE): Well, first of all, I want to say that I think the president gave as strong a speech today as he gave on January 6th, sharing with the American people his commitment to democracy, but also how high the stakes are for this country right now. And to your question, you know, I think it was also pivotal that he as a person who loves the institution of the Senate said that it is time to change the filibuster.
And so, I think that he sent a strong and clear message. I think on the anniversary, coming up on Martin Luther King's birthday, it also is setting the right tone as we go into it. And really we need the Senate to act. And we need to go ahead and reform that filibuster.
TAPPER: So it wasn't just a strong speech. It was rather stark. He basically was suggesting that even Democratic senators that don't support changing the filibuster rule and a lot of them might have concerns about not the voting bills, the election reform bills but what happens when Republicans take over. Are they going to not -- if they are going to get rid of the filibuster, too, and pass a nationwide abortion ban or conceal carry, whatever.
He said anybody who doesn't support changing the filibuster rule is on the side of Jefferson Davis, on the side of Bull Connor, on the side of George Wallace. I don't know that that language is going to work on Joe Manchin.
ROCHESTER: But I do think that he made the real imperative call to Republicans, to Democrats, to everybody that this has to be a number one priority.
And I think one of the things that gets lost is this is not like a policy issue. Do you support minimum wage? This is the foundation of our country. This is about the ability to even be an American.
So what he was saying today to Democrats, Republicans, friends or foes, choose -- choose ye this day, how important is democracy to you?
So I'm looking forward to them having a vote. Make your vote clear. Let the American people know where you stand. Is it on the side of democracy? Is it on the side of what's right?
We can't do climate change. We can't do all of these other things if we don't have a country. And so, that's what January 6th, that's why that was so important, and that's why voting for these two bills and doing whatever it takes to the filibuster is important right now.
TAPPER: But that imperative that you're talking about, the need to protect the right to vote, don't we need to as voters, as Americans, combine that with the practicality of what is going to happen? Which is Democrats are not going to vote unanimously to get rid of the filibuster, and come forward and work with Republicans to pass something.