Barack Obama has backed conservative West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin’s voting rights proposal, calling it a “product of compromise” as the landmark legislation struggles towards a crucial vote in the US Senate on Tuesday.
The former US president weighed in, as did his wife and former first lady, Michelle Obama, decrying Republican efforts in many statehouses across the country to bring in new laws that restrict voting, and urging Congress to pass federal legislation “before it’s too late”.
Barack Obama said the future of the country was at stake.
“I have tried to make it a policy not to weigh in on the day-to-day scrum in Washington, but what is happening this week is more than just a particular bill coming up or not coming up to a vote,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News.
He added: “I do want folks who may not be paying close attention to what’s happening … to understand the stakes involved here, and why this debate is so vitally important to the future of our country,” Obama said.
And the White House said on Monday it views the Senate’s work on an elections bill overhaul and changes being offered by Manchin as a “step forward”, even though the Democrats’ priority legislation is expected to be blocked by a Republican filibuster.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the revisions proposed by Manchin are a compromise, another step as Democrats work to shore up voting access and what Joe Biden sees as “a fight of his presidency”.
“The president’s effort to continue that fight doesn’t stop tomorrow at all,” Psaki said.
The Senate is preparing for a showdown Tuesday, a test vote of the For the People Act, a sweeping elections bill that would be the largest overhaul of US voting procedures in a generation.
A top priority for Democrats seeking to ensure access to the polls and mail-in ballots made popular during the pandemic, it is opposed by Republicans as a federal overreach into state systems.
Manchin has been a vocal Democratic Party holdout on Capitol Hill, opposing the For the People Act and insisting on gleaning bipartisan support for such legislation.
But last week he introduced a list of compromises he would support, including 15 days of early voting and automatic voter registration. His compromise would also ban partisan gerrymandering and requiring voter ID.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said he opposed the compromise, and hopes are fading in many Democratic quarters that a vote on Tuesday in the Senate will take the legislation to the debate stage, thus leaving it stalled.
“Around the world we’ve seen once-vibrant democracies go in reverse,” Obama said. “It is happening in other places around the world and these impulses have crept into the United States … we are not immune from some of these efforts to weaken our democracy.”
“If we have the same kinds of shenanigans that brought about January 6, you know – if we have that for a couple more election cycles we’re going to have real problems in terms of our democracy long term.”
In a post on Instagram, Michelle Obama talked of the Biden legislation fighting voter suppression and strengthening democracy.
“Over the past few months, there’s been a movement in state legislatures all across the country to pass laws that make it harder for people to cast a ballot. That means we’ve got to pass the For the People Act before it’s too late. This bill is one of our best chances…to ensure all of us have a say in our future – whether that’s issues like pandemic relief, criminal justice, immigration, healthcare, education, or anything else,” she wrote.
Manchin had been the sole holdout. His proposed changes to the bill are being well received by some in his party, and any nod from the White House lends them credibility.
He has suggested adding a national voter ID requirement, which has been popular among Republicans, and dropping other measures from the bill like its proposed public financing of campaigns.
Among voting rights advocates, one key voice, Georgia-based Democrat and activist Stacey Abrams, has said she could support Manchin’s proposal.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, it is clear Democrats in the split 50-50 Senate will be unable to open debate, blocked by a filibuster by Republicans.
In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, and without any Republican support, the Democrats cannot move forward.
“Will the Republicans let us debate it?” said Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer as he opened the chamber on Monday afternoon. “We’re about to find out.”