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Biden accuses Republicans of 'un-American' assault on voting rights

President Joe Biden on Thursday at his first

President Joe Biden on Thursday at his first news conference in office. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Bust the filibuster down to size?

President Joe Biden has been warming to the idea of Senate rule changes to make it harder for Republicans to filibuster against his agenda. If his anger at a news conference Thursday is any indication, the GOP push in dozens of states for tighter voting restrictions that could make him call for taking that leap.

"This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle," Biden said of the assault on voting rights. (His analogy — a newly minted Bidenism — to past racist laws caused some head-scratching. His subsequent comment suggested a tortured metaphor about size.) "I mean, this is gigantic, what they’re trying to do. And it cannot be sustained."

Biden went on: "What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is. It’s sick. It’s sick." He pointed to measures such as "deciding in some states that you cannot bring water to people standing in line, waiting to vote; deciding that you’re going to end voting at 5 o’clock when working people are just getting off work; deciding that there will be no absentee ballots under the most rigid circumstances."

Indeed, making it a crime to hand out water to thirsty voters is part of an election overhaul bill passed later Thursday by the Republican-led legislature in Georgia and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp — inspired largely by former President Donald Trump's false claims of fraud in last November's election. The state law also includes new restrictions on voting by mail, including photo ID requirements; giving the legislature — instead of election officials — greater control over how elections are run; shortening deadlines to request absentee ballots; and limiting where ballot drop boxes can be placed and when they can be accessed.

Biden said Thursday that he has an "open mind" about using changes in filibuster rules for certain issues, including voting rights, a key legislative priority for him that does not currently have the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate. And he warned he'll respond if Republicans habitually block his agenda via filibuster. "If there’s complete lockdown and chaos, as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’re going to have to go beyond what I’m talking about," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday laid out agenda for when his chamber returns from a recess in two weeks that includes "voting rights and civil rights," gun-purchase background checks and a massive infrastructure investment, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. Schumer didn’t rule out defanging the filibuster to pass his priorities, pointedly saying that "everything’s on the table."

For a roundup from Biden's first presidential news conference, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez. Click here for a transcript and here for a full video replay.

Janison: Trump as Biden's unlikely helper

As the U.S. Senate goes, so will the Biden administration and its governing agenda, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Based on his track record, Trump's continued hold on the Republican Party threatens to help — rather than harm — Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Next year, 14 of the Democrats' seats come up for midterm elections along with 20 of the Republicans'. The nail-biting is well underway. Several post-Trump, pro-Trump GOP Senate candidates are emerging, and some Republican handicappers see problems.

The prime example: Eric Greitens, who was forced out as Missouri governor in 2018 over allegations of sexual misconduct and blackmail, is picking up endorsements from the Trump camp. "Greitens is a clear and present danger to botching the race for the GOP," Scott Reed, former senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Politico.

Then there's far-right Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who was a warm-up act for Trump's "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.

Also, forget the prospect of nostalgic coattails. Trump's government legacy isn’t about to look better with time as the cost in American lives of the ex-president's coronavirus inaction comes into sharper focus.

Afghanistan: Out by 2022, if not sooner

Biden voiced pessimism that the U.S. could complete a withdrawal from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline set by Trump. "Just in terms of tactical reasons," Biden said, it will "be hard to meet" that date.

But when a reporter sought to pin him down by asking if the U.S. troops would still be there in 2022, Biden said, "I can't picture that being the case."

The May deadline came out of a Trump administration negotiation with the Taliban — "a deal that looks like it's not being able to be worked out to begin with," Biden said at the news conference.

Gen. Richard Clarke, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Senate hearing Thursday that the Taliban have not upheld their commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan and instead have made a deliberate decision to increase attacks. Biden has long advocated for winding down the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

What's 'nice' have to do with it?

Asked about the growing number of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico, Biden pushed back against the notion that the increase was driven by his "nice guy" reputation compared with Trump's.

"Did anybody suggest there was a 31% increase under Trump because he was a nice guy?" Biden said. The president said that number referred to unaccompanied children, but an Associated Press fact-check found Biden erred in suggesting the recent increase in that category was smaller.

Biden also said, "We’re sending back the vast majority of the families" who cross illegally, but New York Times fact-checkers said that's false — in February, 41% were expelled.

Biden said migration data has historically pointed to an increase in border apprehensions during the months of January, February and March. "The reason they're coming is that it's the time they can travel with the least likelihood of dying on the way because of the heat in the desert," Biden said.

He's running in 2024. Or is he?

Biden said his "plan is to run for reelection" in 2024. "That's my expectation," he said. He also said he "would fully expect" that Vice President Kamala Harris would remain on the ticket.

But later in the news conference, he added a hedge. "I'm a great respecter of fate. I've never been able to plan three and a half, four years ahead, for certain," Biden said.

At 78, he became the oldest president in history when he took office in January, and speculation will likely persist about whether he'd seek to start a second term at age 82.

Biden said he had "no idea" whether Trump would be his 2024 opponent. "I have no idea if there will be a Republican Party," he told a reporter. "Do you?"

A double-down on doses

Biden opened the news conference by announcing a new U.S. goal of administering 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of April, doubling his previous target for his first 100 days in office.

At its current pace, the U.S. would record just over 203 million shots by the end of Biden’s 100th full day in office, Bloomberg News reported.

The country may be able to exceed Biden’s new target as manufacturers ramp up production. Johnson & Johnson is set to sharply increase shipments that have only trickled out since its vaccine was authorized a month ago, while Pfizer and Moderna also have steadily increased the pace for theirs.

The U.S. has administered more than 130 million shots so far, including 16.5 million under the Trump administration.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's David Reich-Hale and Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Biden said Thursday that North Korea is the top foreign policy issue facing the United States. He warned that there would be "responses" if North Korea continues to fire ballistic missiles following a new launch earlier in the day.
  • Framing U.S. competition with China in stark terms, Biden described it as a central front in the "battle" between democratic and authoritarian governments. He said China’s ambition of becoming the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is "not going to happen under my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand."
  • Britain is a strong U.S. ally, but Biden referred to an ancestral memory while speaking about the desperation of today's migrants, comparing it to the emigration of a forebear from Ireland on "a coffin ship" — so named because of terrible conditions aboard — during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century. "They left because of what the Brits had been doing," he said. "They were in real trouble, they didn't want to leave, but they had no choice," he added.
  • What was missing from Biden's news conference compared with Trump's sessions, according to The Associated Press: no contentious exchanges with reporters, no questions taken from Fox News and, surprisingly, no questions about the coronavirus.
  • A group of House Democrats are urging Biden to relax White House employment policies regarding marijuana use in the wake of a report that several staffers were subjected to discipline — some asked to resign — after disclosing past partaking of the drug.

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