Washington (AFP) - Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lashed out at President Joe Biden on Wednesday, accusing him of widening the US political divide with his push for voting rights reform and call to change the Senate rules.
"We have a sitting president -- a sitting president -- invoking the Civil War, shouting about totalitarianism and labeling millions of Americans his domestic enemies?" McConnell said in an unusually vitriolic speech on the Senate floor. "Yesterday, he poured a giant can of gasoline on the fire."
Biden, in a speech in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, called for a break in the Senate's supermajority rule so Democrats can override Republican opposition to voting rights reforms that he called crucial to saving US democracy.
Biden said Republicans are passing local laws "designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections."
"History has never been kind to those who sided with voter suppression over voter rights," the Democratic president said. "I ask every elected official in America: how do you want to be remembered?"
Biden is to meet with Senate Democrats on Thursday to discuss voting rights and changing the rules of the Senate to sidestep Republican opposition.
Biden will attend the Senate Democratic Caucus lunch to discuss the "urgent need to pass legislation to protect the constitutional right to vote," the White House said.
In his speech, Biden challenged Democrats in the Senate to back two bills already passed by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives that would expand access to the polls and prevent practices that he said are being used to suppress Black and other Democratic-leaning voters.
The 50 Democrats in the 100-member Senate support the two bills, but under the current supermajority requirement, 60 votes are needed to bring them to the floor.
If Republicans don't cooperate, then the supermajority requirement -- called the filibuster -- should be tossed to get the voting rights acts through, Biden said.
"We have no option but to change the Senate rules including getting rid of the filibuster for this," he said.
Biden's speech drew a furious response from McConnell, the conservative senator from Kentucky who served as majority leader until Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 2020 election.
"The president's rant yesterday was incorrect, incoherent and beneath his office," McConnell said, calling it "pure demagoguery."
Biden delivered a "deliberately divisive speech that was designed to pull our country further apart," he said.
"To demonize Americans who disagree with him, he compared... a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors," McConnell said. "How profoundly -- profoundly -- unpresidential."
McConnell said he personally likes and respects Biden, who spent decades in the Senate, but "I did not recognize the man at the podium yesterday."
Biden, asked about McConnell's remarks, said: "I like Mitch McConnell, he's a friend."
Shortly after, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki dismissed criticism of Biden's Tuesday speech as "hilarious."
"What is far more offensive is the effort to suppress people's basic right to exercise... who they want to elect," she said.
Former Democratic president Barack Obama also lent his support, writing in USA Today that "now is the time for the US Senate to do the right thing."
Democrats accuse Republican state legislatures of enacting laws aimed at restricting the voting rights of minorities and curtailing early voting and mail-in voting in an effort to suppress Democratic support.
Republicans warn that a supposedly one-off maneuver could open the floodgates to lifting the filibuster on all sorts of issues, thereby ending any semblance of bipartisanship in the chamber.
The move needs unanimous Democratic support to happen -- and that's far from assured, with at least two of the more conservative Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, clearly skeptical.
Manchin and Sinema will be the two senators Biden will be seeking to persuade at Thursday's Senate lunch.
The "Freedom to Vote Act" is designed to make it easier for Americans to cast their ballots by expanding mail-in voting and making Election Day an official holiday.
It also takes aim at voting restrictions imposed in several Republican-led states following Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
The other bill, named for civil rights icon John Lewis, would restore anti-discrimination clauses of the Voting Rights Act removed by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Fifteen Black elected officials emotionally urged the Senate Wednesday to pass the voting reform bills.
"It's the most fundamental, sacred thing I can think of," Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said.