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Senators Debating Federal Voting Laws Scrutinize Georgia Statute

Democrats pushing a giant federal elections overhaul summoned leaders from the state, which has passed new voting restrictions, to spar over Republican efforts.Senate Democrats continued to push for a national expansion of voting rights in a hearing featuring leaders from the state of Georgia, a battleground in the voting rights campaign.Pool photo by Bill ClarkSenate Democrats on Tuesday renewed their push for a national expansion of voting rights, summoning leaders from the battleground state of Georgia to help build a public case that Congress should intervene to lower state barriers to voting.At a heated hearing on Capitol Hill, senators quizzed elected officials, academics and advocates on the state’s new election law and dozens of others like it introduced in Republican statehouses since the 2020 election that would restrict ballot access. Their lead witness was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia voting rights activist who has arguably done more than any other Democrat to frame her party’s views of voting issues.Over four hours of testimony, Ms. Abrams argued that Republican-led states like hers across the country were witnessing “a resurgence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression measures” targeting voters of color. She accused Republicans of acting with “racial animus” to tilt the electorate in their favor after former President Donald J. Trump lost Georgia and baselessly claimed he had been the victim of election fraud.She warned that decades of gains could be rolled back if Congress did not step in.“When the fundamental right to vote is left to the political ambitions and prejudices of state actors, ones who rely on suppression to maintain power, federal intercession stands as the appropriate remedy,” Ms. Abrams said.Though the hearing before the Judiciary Committee was not specifically tied to legislation, it was part of a push by Democrats to use their hold in Washington to advance a pair of major voting bills that could counter hundreds of restrictive proposals in the states.The first is a gigantic national elections overhaul, known as H.R. 1, that would force states to expand early voting and mail-in balloting, mandate automatic voter registration and neuter restrictive voter identification laws, among other measures.The second bill, named after the civil rights icon John Lewis, would restore a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it harder for states to target voters of color. It was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court.Republicans oppose both bills, but have trained their ire most directly on the election overhaul, which also includes a new public campaign financing system and a revamp of the Federal Election Commission. On Tuesday, they called it a gross federal overreach intended to help Democrats consolidate power, rejected accusations of racism and renewed vows to help defeat it in the evenly divided Senate.“H.R. 1 is not about righting wrongs,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “It’s about power.”In a sign of how polarized the debate over voting has become, the two parties even sparred over the title of the hearing itself. Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the panel, had labeled it “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.” Republicans called that historically inaccurate and accused Democrats — including President Biden — of cheapening the stain of violent racial oppression by comparing it to voting laws of today.“It’s disgusting and offensive to compare the actual voter suppression and violence of that era that we grew up in with a state law that only asks people to show their ID,” said Representative Burgess Owens, Republican of Utah, adding that he had “actually experienced Jim Crow laws” as a child in the South.Mr. Durbin conceded that Jim Crow “at its worst was more violent than the situation we face today.” But he insisted the goal was much the same.“The bottom-line question, which we are addressing in this hearing, is whether there is a design or intent in legislation that is being passed in many states, including the state of Georgia, to limit or restrict the rights to vote of minority populations,” Mr. Durbin said. “I think that goes without saying.”Republicans’ unified opposition spells certain trouble for any significant federal voting legislation. Democrats would have to persuade all 50 of their senators to vote for the bill and create a carve-out in Senate rules to pass it with just a simple majority, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote. But for now, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has rejected that approach and called for bipartisan negotiations.Democrats’ attempts to renew the Voting Rights Act appear to face odds just as steep. Republicans no longer believe it necessary to restore the stricken provision, which required federal approval of changes to voting procedures in parts of the country with a history of discrimination.Without it, voting rights advocates say they have seen a proliferation of restrictive state voting laws like Georgia’s and must spend years in court trying to undo statutes that run afoul of the Constitution.“Litigation is a blunt instrument,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “What pre-clearance gave us was to get out ahead of voter discrimination before it happened.”Republicans repeatedly turned to their own witnesses to push back on Democrats’ proposals, including Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s long-serving top elections official and a Democrat. Mr. Gardner argued that his party’s attempted overhaul would backfire.“Why should we be made to be like California in particular or other states?” Mr. Gardner said. “We have a way of doing it that works for the people of New Hampshire. The turnout is the proof that it works, and this kind of federal legislation is harmful to our way of voting.”Jan Jones, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the Georgia House, mounted an energetic defense of her state’s new election law, saying that Republicans were merely “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”She said a provision barring third-party groups from providing food and water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots was not a draconian tactic to suppress turnout, but an attempt to stop activists and candidates from using food and other goodies to sway voters.A New York Times analysis identified 16 provisions in the Georgia law that either hinder people’s ability to vote or shift power to the Republican-controlled legislature.Republican senators appeared just as eager to directly question Ms. Abrams, a Democratic star who may run again for governor in Georgia next year. Mr. Graham and Senator John Cornyn of Texas peppered her with questions that sought to portray her assertions about voter identification laws as contradictory, and her condemnation of Georgia’s statute as hypocritical.“So voter ID is sometimes racist, sometimes not racist?” Mr. Cornyn asked, in a lengthy exchange.“The intent always matters, sir, and that is the point of this conversation,” Ms. Abrams responded, saying that she supported some voter ID laws. “That is the point of the Jim Crow narrative. That Jim Crow did not simply look at the activities, it looked at the intent.”Polling shows that the public generally supports such laws, but voting rights advocates argue they can make it harder for some people of color to vote.Mr. Cornyn kept rephrasing the question. Ms. Abrams pushed back.“Senator, I am happy to respond to your questions, but if you are going to mischaracterize my responses, that’s inappropriate,” she said.Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, pinned blame on Ms. Abrams for Major League Baseball’s decision to move this summer’s All-Star Game from Georgia, saying her public criticism of the voting bill had played a “central role” in a decision that could cost her state economically.Ms. Abrams vehemently disagreed, saying she had opposed the league’s move, but would stand by anyone defending the right to vote.“To me, one day of games is not worth losing our democracy,” she said.

Biden says verdict in Chauvin trial could be a step toward racial justice in America and urges country to come together

“I can’t breathe. Those were George Floyd’s last words,” Biden said, evoking the final utterance of the man Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering. “We can’t let those words die with him. We have to keep hearing those words. We must not turn away. We can’t turn away.””This can be a moment of significant change,” he concluded.It was a stark reflection on the state of race and policing from a President who, following Floyd’s death last spring, centered his presidential campaign on a vow to address issues of inequality and systemic bias.Tuesday’s verdict brought those issues to the fore in the biggest way since Biden entered office. The President had been monitoring the trial closely from the White House, carefully calibrating his planned response to address the outcome while acknowledging the continued trauma in Black communities.He had been concerned about the potential for unrest in the event of a not-guilty verdict, leading to relief when the conviction came down.”We were watching every second of this,” he told Floyd’s family in a phone call shortly after the verdict was read aloud in the courtroom. “We’re all so relieved.”In his remarks a few hours later from the White House foyer, Biden called systemic racism “a stain on our nation’s soul” and said he was heartened by the jury’s verdict, the testimony of other police officers against Chauvin throughout the trial and the collective realization about the reality of systemic racism worldwide that has taken place since Floyd’s death. But Biden recognized that none of that progress, or Chauvin being found guilty, would bring Floyd back.”Nothing can ever bring their brother, their father back, but this can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America,” Biden said.The President called a guilty verdict like the one rendered Tuesday “much too rare” and said it was “not enough” to cure all of society’s problems.”For so many people it seems like it took a unique and extraordinary convergence of factors. A brave young woman with a smartphone camera. A crowd that was traumatized,” Biden said, making note that the murder lasted “almost 10 minutes.””Black men, in particular, have been treated throughout the course of our history as less than human. Their lives must be valued in — our nation. Full stop,” Biden added.Vice President Kamala Harris, who spoke ahead of the President, said lawmakers now need to take up legislation that will reform policing in America, calling it a part of Floyd’s legacy.”Today, we feel a sigh of relief. Still, it cannot take away the pain. A measure of justice is not the same as equal justice,” Harris said, calling for passage of a policing bill named for Floyd that she had helped sponsor as a senator.The White House said Biden, Harris and staff watched the verdict from the Private Dining Room adjacent to the Oval Office in the West Wing. A senior administration official later described the reaction inside room as “a collective exhale. From everyone. Then the collective recognition that so much more work needs to be done. But overall just a sweeping sense of relief.”After the verdict was announced, Biden, Harris and first lady Jill Biden spoke with Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, from the Oval Office. Biden also spoke with Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.In his call to Floyd’s family, Biden said, “Nothing is going to make it all better, but at least now there’s some justice.”He said he would bring the family to the White House and quoted Floyd’s daughter Gianna, who told Biden at her father’s memorial that he would change the world.”He’s going to start to change it now,” Biden said on the call.Harris added, “History will look back at this moment and see it as an inflection moment.”The White House had been monitoring the trial over the past several days, and did not plan travel outside of Washington for Biden this week as closing arguments got underway. Officials had signaled Biden was likely to address the outcome when a verdict was reached.On Tuesday, planned remarks on his infrastructure proposal were scrapped to make way for his statement on the trial.Speechwriters had prepared different versions for various outcomes in the trial, though all of them included acknowledgment of the outpouring prompted by Floyd’s death, officials said. Aides had worked on the presidential statement over the past week or so.Earlier Tuesday, Biden had said he was “praying the verdict is the right verdict” and suggested there was ample evidence for the jurors to consider as they determined whether Chauvin was guilty. “It’s overwhelming, in my view,” Biden said in the Oval Office, where he was meeting with Hispanic lawmakers. “I wouldn’t say that unless the jury was sequestered.”This story has been updated with additional developments on Tuesday.CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Jeff Zeleny, Kevin Liptak, Allison Malloy, Jason Hoffman contributed to this report.

Top Biden national security officials to brief lawmakers on Afghanistan Tuesday

Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley discussed the situation with members of both the House and Senate. President Joe Biden announced last week that the United States would withdraw all remaining troops from the country by September 11.It was clear from lawmakers afterward that no minds were changed by the briefing, with critics of the withdrawal saying they were unconvinced by the administration officials’ arguments and supporters saying they made an effective presentation. The briefings occurred ahead of a more public-facing debate, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold a public hearing on the withdrawal.Both Republicans and more hawkish Democrats have raised concerns that the US withdrawal will lead to the Taliban retaking control of the country. “There are no good options in Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said after the briefing. “The moment the Taliban flag flies over a part of Afghanistan, it will send a shot of steroids to every jihadist in the world, that the Taliban beat the West; they beat us.”Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that former President Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US troops played a role in Biden’s decision.”At this point, the President didn’t have very many options, frankly. It was either to ramp up a new war, you’d have to get to 15,000 or 10,000 troops, or zero, given the decision that was made by the previous administration,” Rubio said, adding, “Once we leave, the probability of the Taliban taking over the country or substantial portions of it is very high.”Key Democrats defended the decision to withdraw and the justification offered, saying that the rationale from the administration was sound and that a continued US presence simply wasn’t going to change the conditions on the ground.”Secretary Blinken, in particular, all of them did a really good job of explaining the thought process that went into the decision, how carefully they made it, and how they did it in consultation with our allies, and how they felt it was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision,” said House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington. “They also gave us some pretty good guideposts for how they’re going to go about implementing it, and the contingencies to manage the risk of the decision.”Biden announced last Wednesday that the US would end its military mission in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, noting that the reasons for keeping a military footprint in the country have become “increasingly unclear” over the past decade. Following the President’s announcement, NATO said it would also bring its military mission in Afghanistan to an end. On Tuesday, the top US general for the Middle East told the House Armed Services Committee that he would report to Austin “by the end of the month” with options for maintaining the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US forces.”We’re examining this problem with all of our resources right now to find a way to do it, in the most intelligent, risk-free manner that we can,” CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said.McKenzie said he didn’t want to “put on rose-colored glasses and say it’s going to be easy to do,” but that “the US military can do just about anything.”Biden’s decision to withdraw the remaining troops from Afghanistan has been met with a mixed reaction from members of Congress. Some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed disappointment at the move — which was announced before the Taliban and Afghan government have reached any sort of political settlement — fearing it could imperil gains by women and civil society in Afghanistan. Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican critical of the withdrawal plans, pointed to McKenzie’s testimony Tuesday to argue the military is not prepared.”We just had public testimony just before this with the head of Central Command — there really is no plan,” Waltz said. “The Pentagon is scrambling to come up with a plan as we speak.” On Monday, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who spearheaded diplomatic efforts under both the Trump and Biden administrations, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey, and members of the intelligence community briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the decision.Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the committee, told reporters following the classified briefing that he got some clarity on the decision but still had questions about the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the “contingency planning” for various scenarios once the US leaves. “President Biden got dealt a very difficult hand. There are no good solutions to the challenge of Afghanistan. But there are serious questions,” Menendez told reporters. “After 20 years of blood and national treasure, the question is still in my mind, how do we ultimately ensure the Taliban cannot run over the Afghan government and potentially create it as a place for terrorist attacks to take place? How do we preserve the rights of Afghan women in civil society that have been achieved?” He said he was planning hold a public hearing on the withdrawal decision.Khalilzad, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Amanda Dory, Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, and Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration Morgan Muir will also be on the Hill on Tuesday, according to a congressional source.This story has been updated with details from the briefing.CNN’s Morgan Rimmer, Ali Zaslav, Kylie Atwood and Michael Conte contributed to this report.

Val Demings rebukes Jim Jordan in fiery exchange over law enforcement: 'Did I strike a nerve?'

Tensions escalated during debate over the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would address the surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Republicans had introduced an amendment that would prevent the defunding of police departments even though the legislation does not seek to strip law enforcement funding. “I want to make it quite clear that this amendment is completely irrelevant,” Demings, who served as chief of the Orlando Police Department for three years, said. “I served as a law enforcement officer for 27 years. It is a tough job. And good police officers deserve your support. You know, it’s interesting to see my colleagues on the other side of the aisle support the police when it is politically convenient to do so. Law enforcement officers risk their lives every day. They deserve better,” the Florida Democrat said. At that point, Jordan sought to interject, earning a fierce rebuttal from Demings who struck her hand against the desk in front of her as she exclaimed: “I have the floor Mr. Jordan.””Did I strike a nerve?” Demings continued as she looked in the Ohio Republican’s direction. “Law enforcement officers deserve better that to be utilized as pawns. And you and your colleagues should be ashamed of yourselves.”House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler interrupted the exchange in an effort to restore order to the hearing, but when Jordan said he agreed with Nadler that members shouldn’t shout out of turn, Demings shot back: “Mr. Jordan you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.”A staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, Jordan was in a similarly tense exchange earlier this month when he interrupted Dr. Anthony Fauci during a House subcommittee meeting. His conduct prompted Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters to tell Jordan, “Shut your mouth.”Tuesday’s exchange about law enforcement came against the backdrop of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd. Later Tuesday, a 12-person jury found Chauvin guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The trial in recent weeks again ignited the kind of soul searching about the role of police in society and systemic racism in the criminal justice system, and the nation writ large, that many advocates have been urging for decades.