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After months of protests, Poor People’s Campaign requests meeting with Biden

The group’s co-chair, the Rev. William Barber II, preached at Biden’s inaugural prayer service but has challenged the president on the Senate filibuster.

President Joe Biden, left, and the Rev. William Barber II. (Left, AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster. Right, RNS Photo/Jack Jenkins)

WASHINGTON (RNS) — After dozens of near-weekly demonstrations in support of voting rights, raising the minimum wage and other issues, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign have asked for a meeting with President Joe Biden, escalating efforts to arrange a public summit with a president who endorsed their cause during his campaign.

In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday (Sept. 22), the campaign’s co-chairs, the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, requested a meeting with Biden “as soon as possible” to discuss a “moral reset” for the U.S. that would include ending the use of the filibuster in the Senate.

“As Congress continues to debate your Build Back Better package, we know you have a unique power and responsibility to offer a moral reset for the nation,” the letter reads. “We believe it is our responsibility to help you do that, and we are prepared to bring a racially and geographically diverse delegation of poor and low-income Americans, moral leaders, and economists to put a face on the urgent needs of this moment.”

Poor People’s Campaign officials told Religion News Service that they would hope to send a “geographically diverse delegation” to any such meeting and include a broad range of faith leaders, economists and poor and low-income Americans.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about whether it plans to take the meeting. In a news conference on Monday, Barber said his organization had previously asked for a meeting with the White House and officials told them they were “considering it.”

The request came the same day Biden met with Democratic lawmakers at the White House, hoping to break gridlock among moderate and progressive wings of the party over his infrastructure proposal, a climate and social safety net bill and other elements of the administration’s agenda.

Poor People’s Campaign leaders made a seeming reference to the ongoing debate in their letter.

RELATED: Hundreds arrested at Capitol while protesting for voting rights, minimum wage

“For 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, it is incredibly disheartening to hear Democrats who ran on the platform you are advocating say publicly that they do not see the need or the urgency for more investment,” the group wrote.

“If you will lift the voices of the people who are hurting because of voter suppression, low wages, lack of access to healthcare and climate catastrophes, you have the power to reset the moral narrative in the country, Mr. President.”

The letter also hinted at mounting frustration with how Biden is choosing to push his policies through Congress, in particular his uneven position on the Senate filibuster. The president and his White House have gone back and forth on the filibuster since March, sometimes voicing opposition to changing the practice and other times expressing openness to possible reform.

“We cannot allow the filibuster, which has been used to stall even a conversation about so much important legislation, to block the action that is so desperately needed in this moment,” the campaign leaders wrote.

Outrage over inaction by lawmakers — particularly opposition to voting rights bills among Republicans and a small group of Democrats — helped fuel a series of demonstrations throughout the summer organized by faith groups such as the Poor People’s Campaign.

RELATED: Emboldened religious left leaders vow to keep up pressure under Biden

People participate in a Poor People's Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

People participate in a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington on Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Barber, Theoharis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators arrested outside the Capitol in August in one of the area’s largest peaceful mass-arrest demonstrations in recent memory.

The group also staged demonstrations in Texas to protest local legislation increasing voting restrictions. In West Virginia and Arizona, the group called on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to embrace voting rights, endorse a $15 an hour federal minimum wage and end use of the filibuster, among other demands.

With Manchin and Sinema refusing to budge, the For the People Act was blocked by Republican senators this summer because of the filibuster.

On Monday, Barber, who has previously referred to the filibuster as a “sin,” described it as a “nonconstitutional” policy that has “a history of being used to block or weaken policies that would have addressed slavery, systemic racism, classism, sexism, labor rights, health care and economic justice.”

RELATED: MLK’s family, Rev. Al Sharpton address voting rights, filibuster at Washington march

An increasingly vocal group of faith leaders — particularly Black church leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton — have also decried the filibuster in recent months, citing it as the main impediment to passing voting rights legislation, various economic reforms and efforts to grant statehood to Washington, D.C.

That debate may well be reignited as Senate Republicans suggested this week that they would oppose the Freedom to Vote Act, a bill introduced by Democrats designed to satisfy Manchin’s objections to the For the People Act. Meanwhile, a recent Rolling Stone report indicated Biden may be seeking a narrow carve-out to the filibuster for some of the bills working their way through Congress.

“We cannot allow the public debate to be about what the compromise is between so-called moderates and progressives,” read the letter from the Poor People’s Campaign. “We must shift the consciousness of the American public to realize that we have a shared moral responsibility to establish equal justice and promote the general welfare for every American.”

The campaign’s request also came the same day White House leaders met with a broad group of Christian leaders organized by the advocacy group Circle of Protection, where leaders advocated for voting rights and social programs they say protect the poor and vulnerable.

While Barber waits to hear back from the White House, he is slated to bring his cause to another major capital familiar to Manchin and Biden, who are both Catholic: Vatican City, where Barber is currently scheduled to deliver a talk on “Coalition-building and bridging religious communities for poverty mitigation” at a poverty-focused conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on October 3-4.

“In his most recent encyclical, the Holy Father has made clear that the ‘magic theories’ of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that ‘promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war at all costs,'” Barber said in a statement. “He agrees with the poor people of this nation: we need a moral revolution of values.”

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