On a balmy, overcast Tuesday in Washington, protesters and lawmakers gathered on either end of the Capitol to urge Congress and the White House to act on two issues of varying urgency: the push for a new voting rights law and a solution to the recently expired eviction moratorium. The public demonstrations raised thorny questions about what, exactly, the United States government owes its citizens.
On at least one of those matters, there was something of a breakthrough. The administration on Tuesday evening announced a new eviction moratorium targeting “specific areas of the country where cases are rapidly increasing”—even though the White House had previously said it did not have the legal authority to extend the original moratorium beyond its July 31 expiration date.
In a press conference, President Joe Biden indicated that while he was uncertain about whether the new moratorium would ultimately pass constitutional muster, it would nevertheless “probably give some additional time” to vulnerable tenants as previously allocated funds for renters’ assistance were disbursed.
Biden’s decision may have been largely influenced by the advocacy of Representative Cori Bush and a small cadre of House Democrats who had slept outside the Capitol to protest the lapse of the moratorium. The Missouri congresswoman stationed herself on the Capitol steps for three nights in a row; she allowed other members of Congress to tap in for her on Monday night so that she could get some rest.
Bush’s crusade garnered national attention, and other congressional Democrats and activists have joined her on the steps in recent days. Vice President Kamala Harris even briefly met with Bush on Monday for a conversation where the congresswoman asked the White House to take action. In addition to calling for an extension of the moratorium, Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the administration to expedite the disbursement of $46.5 billion in rental assistance previously allocated by Congress. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen spoke to the Democratic Caucus on Tuesday about how that aid to renters and landlords might be disbursed.
Bush and her Democratic colleagues had called on the Biden administration to immediately reinstate the moratorium, after several days in which the two branches seemed to pass the ball back and forth. Last Thursday, the White House unexpectedly asked Congress to take action on its own to extend the moratorium, just two days before its expiration, and right before the House was set to recess. Biden officials believed at the time that it lacked the legal authority to extend it, based on a concurrence from Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a June Supreme Court decision, in which he said that “clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31.”
But supporters of the extension argue that the situation has changed since Kavanaugh wrote his decision, particularly given the rise in coronavirus cases due to the delta variant. In a press conference with Bush on Tuesday evening, Representative Mondaire Jones also noted that Kavanaugh’s concurrence had no binding effect.
“It is odd, I think, to raise issues about the constitutionality of your own executive action shortly before making that executive action,” Jones said, saying Biden’s voicing of doubts about the constitutionality of the moratorium was “not the commentary of someone who’s actually trying to help people.”
The White House’s extension is simply a Band-Aid on a larger wound, Bush and other Democrats argue, particularly if it ends up thrown out by the courts. Representative Ilhan Omar told reporters in a conference call by the Congressional Progressive Caucus that the moratorium extension “will only be a temporary solution to the mass eviction crisis.”
“We have the House, the Senate, the White House. There is no excuse for our inability to act,” Omar said.
An extension of the moratorium failed to pass in the House on unanimous consent on Friday evening. No roll call vote was held, possibly because it may have revealed that some Democrats were unwilling to vote for an extension. Most members of the House subsequently left Washington for a seven-week recess. But Bush, whose passion for the issue was influenced by her own personal experiences with homelessness, set up camp on the Capitol steps on Friday evening, calling on the White House to take action.
“I am an organizer. I’m an activist. That’s what I do. So I fell back on what I know to do, which was be visible, put your body on the line, use whatever you have,” Bush told reporters earlier on Tuesday, ahead of the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The freshman congresswoman, who represents St. Louis, was on the front lines of the protests in the city in 2014 after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer.
But any legislation extending the moratorium will come up against a roadblock in the Senate, where 10 Republicans would need to offer support in order for it to pass—an unlikely scenario. Moreover, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday afternoon that extending the moratorium “doesn’t seem to me to require any additional legislative action.”
The Senate is currently preoccupied with passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill ahead of a scheduled recess set to begin next week, although the ever-slogging process may cut into that treasured time away from Washington. Senators voted on a few amendments to the bill on Tuesday; within the air-conditioned, marble halls of the Capitol, it was easy to forget that there are any other considerations.
But outside those walls and on the opposite side of the Capitol from Bush’s demonstration, the Declaration for American Democracy held a rally on Tuesday as part of a week of action urging the Senate to hold off on leaving for August recess before passing the For the People Act, a sprawling elections and campaign finance bill. Their effort is likelier the more quixotic of the two calls to action on the Capitol Grounds today: Republicans sank the bill in June and are not likely to change their minds.
The desire to eliminate the filibuster was in the foreground of the voting rights rally, which was attended by a mixture of activists in T-shirts and more than 100 state legislators from across the country. The abolition of the arcane Senate procedure would allow Democrats to advance their legislation with a simple majority, instead of the current 60-vote threshold that’s proven to be the insurmountable obstacle to this critical part of their legislative agenda.
“We shouldn’t be protecting the filibuster over the very foundational principles of American democracy,” Jana Morgan, the director of the Declaration for American Democracy, argued to The New Republic, noting that the filibuster had historically been deployed to block civil rights bills in the twentieth century.
Some speakers at the rally specifically called out the Senate’s Democrats as the current impediment to enacting wide-ranging voting rights legislation. “Senate Democrats, you have the power to ensure free and fair elections,” said Georgia State Representative Renitta Shannon in a speech at the rally. “Republicans cannot be used as the excuse not to get this done.”
Georgia is one of several Republican-controlled states that has considered or enacted voting measures that critics argue will make it more difficult for minority voters to cast their ballot, disproportionately affecting Democrats. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 18 states this year have enacted laws that restricted voting access, as of mid-July.
“This is a now or never moment for our country,” said Texas State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, who along with dozens of his colleagues left the state in mid-July to block the passage of a restrictive voting measure.
Eliminating the filibuster would require support from all 50 Democrats, and at least two, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have repeatedly and publicly expressed opposition to doing so. Manchin has also raised concerns about the scope of the For the People Act, preferring a narrower voting rights bill instead. The Washington Post reported last week that Senate Democrats are currently working on a revised version of their voting rights bill.
Other Democrats have also privately raised concerns about eliminating the filibuster, worrying that it would allow Republicans to pass their own controversial agenda items once they have the majority—which, depending on the results of the midterm elections, could be as early as 2023. But Shannon told The New Republic that these fears were not an excuse for inaction.
“They’re just like, ‘Oh, what if we’re not empowered, you know, what happens if we lose elections in the future?’ But what I want them to know is, if you don’t move the agenda you campaigned on, you’re guaranteed to lose elections,” Shannon said.
Several Democratic senators made an appearance at the rally, including Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the committee that oversees voting rights legislation, and Senator Jeff Merkley, the lead sponsor of the For the People Act. Senator Cory Booker, who was also on hand, cryptically referred to “too many people right now who should be with us today who are not standing with us in this fight,” and denounced the filibuster as an “archaic rule” that is “giving the tyranny of the minority a different name.”
Senator Raphael Warnock insisted in an impassioned speech at the rally that the Senate could “walk and chew gum at the same time,” and thus address voting rights even as it moves forward with infrastructure.
“We must build our country’s infrastructure,” Warnock said. “We must also repair and protect the infrastructure of our democracy.”
Advocates for eliminating the filibuster believe the White House needs to act, just as much as the Senate does. Voting rights activists have previously called on President Biden to endorse ending the practice. The president—who served in the Senate for nearly 40 years—has been unwilling to throw his weight behind its abolition.
Shannon, the Georgia state representative, told The New Republic that “there’s only so much organizing that can be down to out-organize voter suppression bills.”
“Organizers and voters have done their jobs, and now Senate Democrats have to do theirs, and President Biden as well,” Shannon said. “I want him to use his bully pulpit to make it tough for any Democrat who’s not willing to remove the filibuster. And he needs to get on board as well.”