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Biden needs to stay the course on voting rights, Rep. Clyburn says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris call for action on voting rights in Georgia, Democrats in Congress are struggling to gain traction on voting rights measures back in Washington. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina is one of the champions of the legislation. Congressman, good morning.

JIM CLYBURN: Good morning.

MARTINEZ: We just heard voting rights groups who want to know what President Biden's plan is for getting the legislation passed. So what do you want to hear from the president today in Atlanta?

CLYBURN: Well, thank you very much for having me. First of all, I want the president to stay on course. He has been there for some time now, and I wish he would continue, as he did in his speech on January 6. I think he set the tone for where he is and where he hopes the country will move to. And that is to open up voting as the Supreme Court invited us to. You may recall in the decision some eight or nine years ago of Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted the protections in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And at the time, Chief Justice Roberts asked us to update the formula. Congress has done what he asked us to do. And we call that new legislation the John R. Lewis Voting Rights and Advancement Act. Now - and that got to the Senate. The bill got to the Senate. Manchin - Joe Manchin, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia - said that he had some problems with it. He wanted time to rewrite it, and he thought that he could get at least 10 Republicans to go along.

MARTINEZ: Congressman, we know that though, and we know the president set a tone last week. But what have you heard or even heard not maybe publicly, but within your circles, that there is a plan that President Biden plans to put in effect?

CLYBURN: Well, that is the plan. President Biden has endorsed the new bill that Joe Manchin put on the table called Freedom to Vote. And that is the bill that the president has endorsed. Stacey Abrams, down in Georgia - she endorsed it right after Joe Manchin brought it out. I expressed public support for it. And that's the bill. So Joe Manchin is now supporting what seems to be a filibuster of his own bill. And so I think that the president needs to be very clear that he has endorsed Joe Manchin's Freedom to Vote Act, and other groups have endorsed it. And so Joe Manchin ought to be coming on board to support getting rid of the filibuster so his own bill can pass.

MARTINEZ: But Congressman, why would organizers - we just heard from Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter - say that they're not going to show up to the event because they don't see a plan from the president. Why would they say that?

CLYBURN: Well, maybe people are not connecting Joe Manchin to this new bill. I've talked to several people over the weekend who did not know about this so-called Freedom to Vote Act. Everybody has been focused on H.R. 1, For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights and Advancement Act. And so what we see for the people is a combination of what Joe Manchin considers the good parts of H.R. 1 and good parts of H.R. 4. And that is what we are pushing. That's the plan, to put that out there to get everybody on board with it and then say to Joe Manchin, hey, this is your bill that we have all now come around to. Are you going to support getting rid of the filibuster so that we can pass your bill?

MARTINEZ: Because right now, Democrats don't have the votes to really move forward. Are Democrats maybe overpromising right now, Congressman, given the lack of a viable way forward in the Senate?

CLYBURN: I don't think so. You know, when we use the term like that, Democrats - you got 50 Democrats. 48 of them are on board. Two of them are a bit reticent. And so it's just two Democrats. It's not the Democrats. We control the House. The Democrats do. And the Democrats passed both these bills and sent them to the Senate. The Senate is 50/50, and that's where the problem is. Fifty Democrats, 50 Republicans, and only 48 of those 50 Democrats seem to be on board. Two are a bit reticent. So that's the problem.

MARTINEZ: Virginia senator Tim Kaine said the talks on the filibuster were going slower than his commute when he was stranded last week in that big winter storm, that traffic jam. I know he was kind of kidding around about this, but have you had any conversations, Congressman, with your colleagues in the Senate about this path forward? I mean, how would it look like? What would have to happen?

CLYBURN: Well, just what I just laid out has to happen. Chuck Schumer, to his credit, gave time. He walked away from the bill to give Joe Manchin time to try to construct something he thought he could get Republican support for. So that's what happened. But those Republicans did not come around to support what Joe Manchin put on the floor. So I think that - I've talked to people about that. I've been talking to the public. I think that we should zero in on Freedom to Vote Act and then say to Joe Manchin, as I hope the president will do today, this is your bill. We have come to your bill. Now, are you going to continue to support your bill?

MARTINEZ: What about - let me throw this out, then, Congressman - the Electoral Count Act? I've seen at least 10 Republicans signal that they're interested in possibly fixing it and firming up the language in that. Shouldn't Congress maybe focus on that first, considering that there seems to be at least more of a willingness to move on that?

CLYBURN: Not first, no. What we got to focus on first are these elections coming up and whether or not we have preclearance in these elections, whether or not we're going to allow voter nullification to be a part of these elections coming up in the primary season and in the general election. That part of this equation will not take effect until 2024. So no, that should not get out in front of this. Let's get rid of all of these impediments to the vote that we are now experiencing in these states. And then after this is done, we have plenty of time to deal with that part of it 'cause that's presidential stuff. I've been saying most of my adult life that we focus too much on presidential stuff and not knowing what's happening at our legislatures and at our school boards. And that's where our big problem is.

MARTINEZ: But before we know it, there will be a year where presidential stuff will have to be dealt with.

CLYBURN: Well, we still have two years to do that. We only have about two months to do this.

MARTINEZ: Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Congressman, thank you very much for your time.

CLYBURN: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.