Home / News / World /  Biden dealt setback on elections bill, filibuster

President Biden expressed doubts that Democrats would pass their elections legislation, bowing to political realities that left party leaders shy of any path forward in the Senate, just two days after he cited a grave threat to democracy in imploring lawmakers to approve the measure.

“The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know if we can get this done," Mr. Biden told reporters Thursday after a closed-door lunch with the Senate Democratic caucus. He said he still had hope for what the party had dubbed its top priority but added, “One thing for certain: Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time."

Mr. Biden’s downbeat assessment put a fine point on the challenges facing Democrats, who are united around a sweeping measure to set new federal standards for voting but divided over whether to change the Senate’s rules to muscle through the bill. In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats lack the votes to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle and could be guaranteed to pass their bill only if they lowered to a simple majority the threshold for passing legislation.

Shortly before Mr. Biden’s scheduled lunch with Democrats, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) took to the Senate floor to reiterate that she wouldn’t support rules changes that get rid of the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Changing filibuster rules would require the support of all Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) later reiterated his own opposition to eliminating the filibuster. Democrats’ had pinned their chances on changing the senators’ minds, but the statements extinguished those slim hopes.

“While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country," Ms. Sinema said. She cited the split in the Senate, and Democrats’ narrow majority in the House as voters asking both parties to “work together and get stuff done for America."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) had set a deadline of Monday, Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to try to pass the voting bills before moving ahead with seeking changes to the filibuster. Late Thursday, Mr. Schumer changed that plan, saying Democrats would wait to begin debate on the measure until Tuesday, citing a potential winter storm and unspecified issues related to Covid-19. Democrats need all 50 members present to approve a motion to proceed to debate on the bill, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) tested positive for Covid-19 and is quarantining.

Democrats are pushing to pass changes to elections law nationwide, which they say are needed to protect voter access to the polls but Republicans criticize as a politically motivated federal overreach into matters best left to states.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that during the lunch, Mr. Biden was focused on speaking directly to the caucus and not on Ms. Sinema’s comments. A person familiar with the matter said the White House had been notified of her floor speech in advance. Mr. Biden hosted Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema at the White House late Thursday, and they had a candid and respectful exchange of views, an official said.

Some Democrats aired frustrations with the holdout senators. At the lunch, Mr. Biden didn’t call out Ms. Sinema or Mr. Manchin by name, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) said. But, she added, “Let’s be real, we’ve all been addressing these points to them for the last however many conferences we’ve had."

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.), whom some activists want to challenge Ms. Sinema in a primary in 2024, singled her out in a floor speech. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy," he said. “It’s past time for the U.S. Senate and Sen. Sinema to do the same."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has criticized efforts to weaken the filibuster, called Ms. Sinema’s remarks important. “She has, with a conspicuous act of political courage, saved the Senate as an institution," he said.

Democrats have long pushed the measures, which include making Election Day a national holiday and expansive new mail-in voting requirements, but a string of voting measures passed in GOP-controlled state legislatures have given them a new drive to act. Republicans call the Democratic measures an effort to grab power from states and unfairly malign requirements, such as voter ID, designed to strengthen election integrity.

The current package headed to the Senate combines “The Freedom to Vote Act" with a separate measure named after the late civil-rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.

Since the start of the year, Mr. Biden has bet much of his political capital on voting rights, which advisers see as a critical issue for the Democratic base, despite doubts about its prospects. Mr. Biden’s meeting Thursday with Senate Democrats was seen as a last-ditch, personal attempt to try to win over holdouts.

The appeal followed a fiery speech on Tuesday in which he compared opponents of the voting overhaul to segregationists and traitors, drawing praise from activists skeptical of his commitment to the issue but outrage from Republicans who said the rhetoric was inappropriate and winning no new support.

Thursday morning, the Democratic-led House passed a new elections bill to send to the Senate, with a vote expected in coming days. The new bill, which passed 220-203, wraps together two bills that previously passed the House but were blocked last year by Republicans in the Senate. When asked about its chances of passage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) responded: “You have to go over and ask that in the Senate."

The fight over voting rules and the filibuster has sparked dire warnings from both parties.

“If there was ever a power grab, it’s what’s happening in state legislatures right now," Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Republicans are taking away people’s sacred right to vote, and aiming it particularly at certain groups, people of color, young people, people in urban areas."

Mr. McConnell challenged Democrats’ claims and their plans to change the Senate’s rules.

“President Biden and Senate Democrats have been shouting, actually shouting, at the American people that an evil, racist, anti-voting conspiracy will destroy democracy forever unless Democrats get total one-party control of the entire government starting next week," he said. “But are the American people buying any of it?"

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