White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed Friday that President Biden didn’t intend to offend senators by likening them to George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis — but simply meant to compare their actions to those of the infamous white supremacists.
Psaki was pressed at her regular briefing about Biden’s fiery rhetoric at a Tuesday speech in Atlanta, which unsuccessfully sought to convince Democratic senators to set aside the 60-vote legislative filibuster and pass election reforms with a bare majority.
“He is talking about Republicans that don’t agree with voting rights — he’s describing them as George Wallace, Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis,” said Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy.
“What happened to the guy who, when he was elected, said, ‘To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemies’?”
“I think everybody listening to that speech — who’s speaking on the level, as my mother would say — would note that he was not comparing them as humans,” Psaki responded.
She added: “He was comparing the choice to those figures in history and where they’re going to position themselves as they determine whether they’re going to support the fundamental right to vote or not.”
Biden’s speech described last year’s Capitol riot as a “coup” attempt and alleged that Republican-led states are passing voting restrictions to reduce participation because of former President Donald Trump’s claims of voter fraud, which were rejected by courts.
“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be 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?” Biden said.
Davis was the first and only president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Wallace, the longtime Alabama governor, famously stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to block desegregation in 1963 and ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1968. Connor ordered police to violently disperse civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Ala., during the 1960s.
Biden’s push for the election legislation flopped. On Thursday, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) reiterated that they won’t support changes to filibuster rules to allow for the bill to pass without Republican support in the evenly divided Senate.
Republicans blasted Biden’s speech, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) variously calling it a “rant,” “incoherent,” and “un-presidential” on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at that podium yesterday,” said McConnell, who added that Biden’s remarks amounted to “shouting that 52 senators and millions of Americans are racist unless he gets whatever he wants.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said that Biden was going “down the same tragic road taken by President Trump casting doubt on the reliability of American elections.”
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, voted to convict Trump in two Senate impeachment trials and harshly criticized him during the 2016 campaign.
Romney said in his own Senate speech that Biden “said quite a number of things that simply weren’t true” in his Atlanta address and “accused a number of my good and principled colleagues in the Senate of having sinister, even racist inclinations.”
The bills pushed by Biden include the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would force certain states to gain federal approval to make changes to election laws, responding to a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that reduced post-Civil Rights era oversight. The other, the Freedom to Vote Act, would make Election Day a holiday, force states to allow no-excuse mail-in voting and require that most jurisdictions allow 10 hours per day of early voting for two weeks before an election. That bill would bar states from requiring people to show ID to get a mail-in ballot.
The legislation is designed to override laws such as one in Georgia that passed last year. That law doesn’t alter Election Day voting hours and expands early voting by adding a second mandatory Saturday. It also affirms that counties can open for early voting on two Sundays and allows counties to extend early voting hours beyond normal business hours. Democrats oppose provisions that require a photo ID to get an absentee ballot, shorten the window of time to vote absentee and allow state officials to take over local election offices in response to alleged misconduct.