WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Thursday that Republican efforts to limit voting rights were “sick” and “un-American,” vowing to prevent states from taking what he called “despicable” actions that undermine democracy by making it harder for people to cast ballots.
Speaking to reporters in the East Room of the White House for his first formal news conference, Biden said he would do “everything in my power” to pass voting rights legislation now under consideration in the Senate. But when asked about ending the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to approve most legislation — one of the biggest obstacles to the voting rights bill and much of the rest of his agenda — the president was more cautious, suggesting he was open to change but not committing himself to it.
The 60-vote threshold imposed by the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way,” Biden said, reiterating his support for a proposal that would require senators to keep talking in order to block legislation — a shift in practice that could deter routine use of the rule.
“I strongly support moving in that direction,” he said.
But he also signaled more directly than he has previously that he might eventually back more far-reaching proposals to limit or abolish the filibuster if doing so turned out to be essential for passage of a voting rights measure and other key elements of his agenda in a Senate that is divided 50 to 50.
“If there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster,” the president said, “then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about.”
During a question-and-answer session that lasted more than an hour, Biden said it was his “expectation” that he would run for reelection in 2024, with Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate.
He said for the first time that he “can’t picture” U.S. troops still in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year, although he repeated that it would be hard to have them out by the current deadline of May 1. And he promoted his administration’s progress in fighting the health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, vowing to deliver 200 million vaccinations by the end of April — twice his previous pledge — even as the government also delivers a big new infusion of financial aid.
“As of yesterday, more than 100 million payments of $1,400 have gone into people’s bank accounts,” the president said, referring to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that he pushed through Congress with no Republican support. “That’s real money in people’s pockets bringing relief instantly, almost. And millions more will be getting their money very soon.”
But even as he said that the pandemic remained the country’s “most urgent problem” and promised that “hope is on the way,” Biden was barraged with questions about his handling of the surge of migrants — especially children — at the U.S. border with Mexico.
He insisted, sometimes emotionally, that officials in his government were doing everything they could to treat migrant children humanely, and he repeatedly blamed former President Donald Trump for the overcrowding in border facilities.
“The idea that I’m going to say, which I would never do, ‘If an unaccompanied child ends up at the border, we’re just going to let him starve to death and stay on the other side’ — no previous administration did that either, except Trump,” Biden said. “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.”
Former Trump administration officials accused the president of mischaracterizing his predecessor’s border policies and said Biden’s efforts to embrace a more “humane” immigration policy had invited a surge in migrants. At the same time, they noted that the current administration was still relying on a Trump-era policy of expelling most migrants because of the pandemic.
Biden said he was negotiating with Mexican officials to ensure that all families could be stopped, saying: “They should all be going back. All going back.”
Biden said his administration would intensify efforts to move migrant children out of crowded conditions at the border. He added that he had directed his top immigration officials this week to accelerate the pace at which migrant children are placed with relatives already living in the United States.
“They’ll get a whole hell of lot better real quick, or we’re going to hear of some people leaving,” he said. “We can get this done. We’re going to get it done.”
The news conference was Biden’s first extended grilling by journalists since taking office more than two months ago. Since then, his advisers have carefully controlled his interactions with the news media, which have included one-on-one interviews and some limited opportunities for reporters to ask questions during brief appearances.
A veteran politician with a long history of verbal gaffes during unscripted moments, Biden has entered the presidency with more than his usual amount of discipline about his message. But his decision to finally face reporters in a more formal way — a White House tradition for decades — was a test of his ability to maintain that discipline under pressure.
Standing in front of American flags in the stately East Room, the president offered detailed answers across a range of topics. He rambled through some of his answers — demonstrating a former senator’s ability to filibuster — and displayed annoyance with some of his inquisitors as well as flashes of humor, referring at one point to “when I came to the United States Senate 120 years ago.”
Biden said he remained committed to bipartisanship but defined it more as winning the support of Republican voters for policies like the stimulus package, which polls show is popular across party lines, than in winning the votes of elected Republicans on issues like infrastructure, gun control, climate change, immigration and voting rights.
“My Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they decide that the way in which they want to proceed is to — is to just decide to divide the country, continue the politics of division,” he said.
Advisers to the president had delayed Biden’s first news conference until after passage of the stimulus package, hoping to use the highly anticipated event as part of a victory lap as he promotes the benefits of the economic stimulus measure and tries to build support for even more spending.
He used his opening remarks to celebrate what he cast as encouraging signs for the economy, citing new forecasts that show economic growth for the year could reach 6%.
But Biden’s appearance came at a moment of national mourning over mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia, and just hours after North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast — both of which serve as reminders that a president’s agenda can often be derailed or shifted by national or global events.
Biden had previously signaled that it was unlikely that the United States would withdraw its 2,500 remaining troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline mandated in an agreement that Trump reached with the Taliban. But he had left open the question of whether the troops would remain indefinitely, as many in the Pentagon have argued is necessary.
“If we leave, we’re going to do so in a safe and orderly way,” he said, adding moments later that “it is not my intention to stay there for a long time.”
The president also said that North Korea’s decision to launch missiles violated U.N. resolutions and promised to “respond accordingly.” But he opened the door to negotiations, “conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization,” something that North Korean officials have previously said they would never agree to.
On the mass shootings over the past two weeks, the president played down the urgency of quickly passing gun safety legislation.
“Successful presidents, better than me, have been successful, in large part, because they know how to time what they’re doing,” Biden said when asked about what actions he planned to take after the back-to-back mass shootings that killed 18 people.
“Order it. Decide priorities,” he said before quickly shifting to a different topic: his desire to spend up to $3 trillion more to “rebuild the infrastructure — both physical and technological infrastructure — in this country.”
Responding to the mass shooting this week at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, Biden had called on the Senate to pass a ban on assault weapons and to close background-check loopholes. But so far, his administration has done nothing to indicate it plans to spend much political capital on proposals that were immediately met with a blockade of opposition by Republicans.
Biden’s criticism of attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to impose new voting restrictions were blistering. He compared the efforts — which include limits on early and absentee voting — to the Jim Crow-era laws that blocked Black Americans from voting in Southern states by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictions.
“I am convinced that we’ll be able to stop this because it is the most pernicious thing,” Biden said. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic what they’re trying to do, and it cannot be sustained.”
But the political reality of a deeply divided Congress may make it difficult for the president to succeed. Even as Biden indicated his support for Democratic legislation aimed at blocking the Republican efforts, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — a member of his own party — distanced himself from the current version of what would be the most significant federal election overhaul in a generation, including a major expansion of voting rights.
A day after Democratic leaders used the first Senate hearing on the overhaul to propel the nearly 900-page behemoth to the top of their legislative agenda, Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, called for the proposal to be sharply pared back and renegotiated with Republicans. He said there were “legitimate” concerns over some of its provisions.
“We can and we must reform our federal elections together — not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans to restore the faith and trust in our democracy,” Manchin said in a statement.
Biden’s pledge to double the number of vaccinations during his first 100 days was in keeping with the president’s pattern: aim low, and when it is clear the initial target will be exceeded, adjust upward to another attainable goal.
The nation is already on track to meet the 200 million figure. As of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a total of 130 million shots had been administered and that 14% of the American population was fully vaccinated.