Vice President Kamala Harris met with a delegation of Democratic lawmakers from Texas at the American Federation of Teachers in Washington on Friday, aiming to start a dialogue on pushing through voting rights reform at the federal level.
The meeting came less than a day after 50-plus Democratic state lawmakers fled the Lone Star State for Washington, D.C., in protest against a GOP overhaul of election laws in Texas, which was expected to gain early approval in a special legislative session.
During a visit to Detroit on Monday, just before the Texas lawmakers boarded their planes for Washington, Harris said the legislators displayed “extraordinary courage and commitment” in their protest, adding: “I applaud them standing for the rights of all Americans, and all Texans, to express their voice through their vote unencumbered.”
Harris repeated that sentiment ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, saying she wanted to both offer thanks and to facilitate a conversation with the lawmakers.
Upon hearing of the group’s “courageous” plans to travel to D.C. the day before, Harris said she and the civil rights activists gathered at TCF Stadium praised “the commitment, and the patriotism that you all have evidenced by your actions, in addition to your work and your words,” the vice president told the group on Tuesday.
“I know what you have done comes with great sacrifice, both personal and political,” she added. “And you are doing this in support and in defense of some of our nation’s highest ideals.”
Voting rights has become one of the key issues for the administration. In recent months, several GOP-led states have sought to enact a string of new and increasingly restrictive voting legislation, seizing on former President Donald Trump’s false claims of “voter fraud” in the 2020 election in an attempt to justify the new restrictions.
The Texans’ decision to hole up in Washington is aimed at ratcheting up pressure on President Joe Biden and Congress to act on voting at the federal level. The lawmakers hope, in part, a federal elections reform bill would make it easier to register and vote nationwide and could counter pushes in the opposite direction in Texas and several GOP-controlled states.
Harris and the state lawmakers held a closed-door meeting following the vice president’s remarks on Tuesday.
"This is not an issue about Democrats or Republicans. This is about Americans and how Americans are experiencing this issue," Harris, later adding: "I'm here to thank you, and to have conversation with you."
The group is expected to meet with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., at some point this week, although a firm date for the meeting has not been set, a spokesperson for the senator confirmed to Spectrum News.
Manchin, along with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have served as key negotiators in the fight to pass a comprehensive voting rights act — in part because both have so far expressed reluctance to changing the Senate rules to bypass the filibuster, and press forward on a vote despite Republican objections.
Many Democrats have expressed frustration with the lack of a greater White House push to change the filibuster, with civil rights activists stressing that Biden was elected with broad support from Black people whose votes are often put at risk by voting restrictions. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a longtime Biden ally, urged this week that the filibuster be modified for voting rights legislation.
Biden, himself a veteran of the Senate, has offered some support for filibuster changes. But he has not put his full political weight behind the issue, believing it counterproductive in both the legislative and political fights over voting. He and Harris, who is leading the administration’s efforts on voting rights, met last week with some of the civil rights leaders, who made clear that they expected a legislative solution.
In a speech from Philadelphia on Tuesday, Biden called on Congress to pass the For the People Act, which he called a "national imperative," and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act "to restore and expand voting protections and prevent voter suppression."
"As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it," Biden pledged.
The For the People Act narrowly passed the House along party lines, but Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote to debate the measure last month.
Biden slammed Republicans for not even debating the For the People Act in the Senate: "We must pass the For the People Act. It's a national imperative."
It is unclear if the president plans to meet with the Texas delegation in Washington this week. But White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday said Biden sees Texas’ potential election overhaul as an “attack on democracy,” adding of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill: “[Biden] applauds their courage.”
The Texas bills would outlaw 24-hour polling places, banning ballot drop boxes used to deposit mail ballots and empowering partisan poll watchers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.