WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Tuesday that he had directed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead Democrats in a sweeping legislative effort to protect voting rights, an issue that is critical to his legacy but one that faces increasingly daunting odds in a divided Senate.
“Today, I’m asking Vice President Harris to help these efforts, and lead them, among her many other responsibilities,” Mr. Biden said during a trip to Tulsa, Okla. “With her leadership and your support, we’re going to overcome again, I promise you, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of work.”
The president was in Oklahoma to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, when a white mob destroyed a vibrant Black business district and killed as many as 300 people. The massacre was one of the worst outbreaks of racist violence in American history, and it has gone largely ignored in history books.
Mr. Biden told the crowd that he saw the protection of voting rights as one of the most fundamental — and most endangered — pathways to ensure racial equity.
But his decision to install Ms. Harris as the leader of an effort to beat back bills in states nationwide that are trying to tighten voting rules — “a truly unprecedented assault on our democracy, ” Mr. Biden told the crowd — added another politically thorny problem to the vice president’s policy portfolio.
Ms. Harris has already been tasked with leading the administration’s efforts to deter migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The vice president — who will visit Mexico and Guatemala next week — and her staff have worked to reframe expectations around her role, stressing that she will examine the root causes of migration, not single-handedly stop the flow of migrants to the United States.
Her Northern Triangle work comes in addition to a host of other assignments, including but not limited to: selling the “American Rescue Plan,” advocating Mr. Biden’s infrastructure package, representing women in the work force, highlighting the Black maternal mortality rate, assisting small businesses, assessing water policy, promoting racial equity, combating vaccine hesitancy, and fighting for a policing overhaul.
For her part, Ms. Harris embraced the assignment in a statement issued shortly after Mr. Biden’s announcement in Tulsa.
“In the days and weeks ahead, I will engage the American people, and I will work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, and the private sector to help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide,” the vice president said. “And we will also work with members of Congress to help advance these bills.”
Mr. Biden has focused on issues related to voting rights for much of his career, but the Senate now bears little resemblance to the deal-making chamber he remembers. He faces especially wrenching decisions when it comes to the voting rights legislation he has asked Ms. Harris to help shepherd through Congress.
Known as the “For the People Act,” the bill is the professed No. 1 priority of Democrats this year. It would overhaul the nation’s elections system, rein in campaign donations and limit partisan gerrymandering. But after passing the House, it hit a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate.
One option for Democrats would be to ram the bill through on a partisan vote by further rolling back one of the foundations of Senate tradition: the filibuster. But at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, remains opposed to the idea, potentially scuttling it.
In Tulsa, Mr. Biden seemed to express open frustration at the odds facing the bill — and at the Democratic lawmakers who may stand in the way of its success.
“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done’?” the president said. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” a likely swipe at Mr. Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another moderate Democrat.