ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) — President Joe Biden pledged Friday to fight for stalled voting rights and police reform legislation, addressing graduates of South Carolina State University amid the harsh reality that months of talks with lawmakers have failed to move the measures closer to becoming law.
Biden spoke at the historically Black school a day after conceding that his nearly $2 trillion social and environmental bill was unlikely to become law this year, as he had hoped, due to continued disagreement among fellow Democrats. Republicans unanimously oppose the spending.
Wearing a black gown as he delivered the December commencement address, the president bemoaned GOP opposition keeping voting rights bills from advancing in the 50-50 Senate following passage by the Democratic-controlled House. He blamed “that other team, which used to be called the Republican Party,” for refusing to even allow the bills to be debated.
“But this battle’s not over,” Biden said. “We’re going to keep up the fight until we get it done.”
Biden's vow to keep pushing to protect what he called “the sacred right to vote” as the NAACP and similar groups have grown frustrated with the White House over the lack of progress on the issue. Voting rights is a priority for Democrats heading into next year's midterm elections after Republican-controlled legislatures passed a wave of restrictive new voting laws.
Biden pledged similar advocacy for police reform, another issue important to the Black community after a series of killings of Black men by police, including George Floyd's death last year after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for about nine minutes.
The House passed a sweeping police reform measure earlier this year in response to Floyd's killing, but months of negotiations among a bipartisan group of senators failed to produce a bill.
Biden vowed to keep pressing for police reform, too.
“The fight's not over,” he said at the alma mater of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress and South Carolina's only Democrat in the delegation. Clyburn, who sat on stage with Biden, accepted his degree from the president, a longtime friend.
Part rah-rah speech for the graduates as they prepare to venture out into the world, Biden at times sounded more like a candidate as he used the appearance before a predominantly Black audience to stress how his administration is working to improve their economic and educational standing, from increased funding for historically Black colleges and universities to fighting housing discrimination.
Black voters, in South Carolina and other states, were a crucial part of the coalition that helped Biden win election as president.
He also touched on the infrastructure bill he recently signed into law, including the promise of thousands of new jobs, but avoided discussing his centerpiece social welfare and environmental bill. That measure remains bottled up in the Senate, largely due to opposition from a fellow Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and facing an uncertain fate next year, when Democrats need accomplishments to show as they campaign for reelection in the November.
Biden also pledged to help stamp out hate and racism, referenced the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, carried out in hopes of subverting his election, and talked about his appreciation for historically Black colleges and universities. He noted that key members of his team had graduated from historically Black schools, including Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard University alum.
“You can defeat hate, but you can’t eliminate it," Biden said. “It just slides back under a rock and, when given oxygen by political leaders, it comes out ugly and mean as it was before. We can’t give it any oxygen. We have to step on it.”
He did not discuss legislative strategy, including how he would turn hard Democratic opposition to the $2 trillion plan into support. All he offered was the promise to keep fighting — the same advice he gave the graduates.
Biden told them their “secret power” is the ability to understand the injustices and complications of the world, with the enduring legacies of racism leaving Black Americans at a disadvantage in home ownership and economic mobility.
There were no December ceremonies when Clyburn graduated in 1961, so he received his diploma by mail. Instead of addressing this year's graduates, as had been planned, Clyburn joined the procession of students on stage to receive his degree from Biden, whom he invited to deliver the commencement address.
The president visited at a fraught time for his agenda, with the future of his $2 trillion social and environmental spending package in doubt. While Democrats had hoped to make progress on the bill before Christmas, continued disagreements among lawmakers have all but halted negotiations, and Biden himself has signaled Democrats should shift their focus to passing a voting rights bill — another heavy lift in the evenly divided Senate.
Biden and Clyburn had been planning a gathering in South Carolina, Clyburn told reporters this week, and they figured Friday's ceremony would suffice. The meetup is significant for both, in that it's Biden's first time as president in South Carolina, where Clyburn's public support is credited with boosting Biden to the Democratic presidential nomination.
On the cusp of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, after struggling through less-than-stellar performances in other early-voting contests, Biden secured a public endorsement from Clyburn, an awaited signal for many Black voters that Biden would be the candidate to stand up for their interests.
Biden's roots in the state run deeper than his 2020 campaign. Often coming to Kiawah Island near Charleston for family vacations, Biden also spent decades as desk mate to Fritz Hollings, South Carolina’s longtime Democratic senator. Biden eulogized Hollings at his 2019 funeral, a task he previously performed for another South Carolina senator, Republican Strom Thurmond.
By MEG KINNARD, JOSH BOAK and DARLENE SUPERVILLE Associated Press
Superville reported from Washington.