WASHINGTON (AP) — All but acknowledging defeat, President Joe Biden said Thursday he's "not sure" his elections and voting rights legislation can pass Congress this year. He spoke at the Capitol after a key fellow Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, dramatically announced her refusal to go along with changing Senate rules to muscle past a Republican filibuster blockade.
Biden had ridden to the Capitol to prod Democratic senators in a closed-door meeting, but he not optimistic when he emerged. He vowed to keep fighting but was talking about next year for the sweeping legislation that advocates say is vital to protecting elections.
"One thing for certain, like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we could come back and try the second time," he told reporters, his voice rising. "As long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting."
Sinema all but dashed the bill's chances moments earlier, declaring just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill that she could not support a "short sighted" rules change.
She said in a speech on the Senate floor that the answer to divisiveness in the Senate is not to change filibuster rules so one party, even hers, can pass controversial bills. "We must address the disease itself, the disease of division, to protect our democracy," she said.
The moment once again leaves Biden empty-handed after a high-profile visit to Congress. Earlier forays did little to advance his other big priority, the "Build Back Better Act" of social and climate change initiatives. Instead, Biden returns to the White House with his second-year agenda languishing in Congress.
Biden spoke for more than an hour in private with restive Democrats in the Senate, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who also opposes changing Senate rules.
Since taking control of Congress and the White House last year, Democrats have vowed to counteract a wave of new state laws, inspired by former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election, that have made it harder to vote. But their efforts have stalled in the narrowly divided Senate, where they lack the 60 votes out of 100 to overcome a Republican filibuster.
"In recent years, nearly every party-line response to the problems we face in this body, every partisan action taken to protect a cherished value has led us to more division, not less," Sinema said from the Senate floor.
For weeks, Sinema and Manchin have come under intense pressure to support a rule change that would allow the party to pass their legislation with a simple majority — a step both have long opposed.
By taking to the Senate floor shortly before Biden's arrival, Sinema made clear she would not go along, further damaging the party's already slim chances to pass one of its top priorities.
Though Trump and other Republicans also pressed for filibuster changes when he was president, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Sinema's speech an important act of "political courage" that could "save the Senate as an institution."
On Tuesday Biden gave a fiery speech in Atlanta, likening opponents of the legislation to racist historical figures and telling lawmakers they will be "judged by history."
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the chamber floor, "If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?"
Democrats have shifted their strategy in order to push the legislation forward. They will use existing Senate rules in an effort to bypass the Republican filibuster that has prevented them from formally debating the bill on the chamber's floor. They hope to force a public showdown that could stretch for days and carry echoes of civil rights battles a generation ago that led to some of the most famous filibusters in Senate history.
But the new approach also does little to resolve the central problem Democrats face: They lack Republican support to pass the elections legislation on a bipartisan basis, but also don't have support from all 50 Democrats for changing the Senate rules to allow passage on their own.
Republicans are nearly unanimous in opposing the legislation, viewing it as federal overreach that would infringe on states' abilities to conduct their own elections. And they've pointed out that Democrats opposed changes to the filibuster that Trump sought when he was president.
The Democratic package of voting and ethics legislation would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation, striking down hurdles to voting enacted in the name of election security, reducing the influence of big money in politics and limiting partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts. The package would create national election standards that would trump the state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the ability of the Justice Department to police election laws in states with a history of discrimination.
For Democrats and Biden, the legislation is a political imperative. Failure to pass it would break a major campaign promise to Black voters, who helped hand Democrats control of the White House and Congress, and would come just before midterm elections when slim Democratic majorities will be on the line. It would also be the second major setback for Biden's agenda in a month, after Manchin halted work on the president's $2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives shortly before Christmas.
Schumer had initially set the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, on Jan. 17, as a deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the filibuster rules. That vote could still happen.
But under their new strategy, which uses a procedural shortcut, they will be able to actually hold a debate on the bill without being blocked by a filibuster, which Republicans have deployed four times in recent months to stop debate.
The mechanics work like this: The House amended an unrelated bill that was already approved both chambers of Congress, combining Democrats two separate voting bills into one. After the House passed that bill Thursday, the Senate can debate the measure with a simple majority, bypassing a filibuster. But they Senate Republicans can still block them from holding a final vote.
After the debate on the bill, Schumer said Democrats still plan to consider changes to the filibuster.
But Manchin, who played a major role writing Democrats' voting legislation, threw cold water on the hopes Tuesday, saying any changes should be made with substantial Republican buy-in — even though there aren't any Republican senators willing to sign on.
That befuddled South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Clyburn questioned the wisdom of reflexively seeking bipartisanship, noting that the right to vote was granted to newly freed slaves on a party-line vote.
"He seems to be supporting a filibuster of his own bill," Clyburn said of Manchin. "That, to us, is very disconcerting."
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