By BRIAN SLODYSKO, LISA MASCARO and ALEXANDRA JAFFE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden nearly admitted defeat on Thursday and said Thursday he is now unsure whether the Democratic major election and voting rights legislation could pass Congress this year. He spoke in the Capitol after a key Democrat, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, dramatically announced her refusal to go along with a Senate rule change to push the bill past a Republican filibuster.
Biden had come to the Capitol to goad Democratic senators in a behind-closed-doors meeting, but he wasn’t optimistic when he came out. He vowed to keep fighting for comprehensive legislation, which supporters say is vital to protecting the elections.
“The honest answer to God is, I don’t know if we can do this,” Biden said. He told reporters in a louder voice, “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m even engaged, I’m going to fight.”
Sinema all but killed the bill’s chances minutes earlier, stating just before Biden’s arrival on Capitol Hill that she could not support a “short-sighted” rule change.
She said in a Senate speech that the answer to the division in the Senate and the country is not to change the filibuster rules to allow a party, even hers, to pass controversial bills. “We must address the disease itself, the disease of division, to protect our democracy,” she said.
The moment again leaves Biden empty-handed after a high-profile visit to Congress. Previous forays did little to advance his other big priority, the Build Back Better Act for social and climate change initiatives. Instead, Biden returned to the White House with his agenda in Congress.
Biden spoke privately for more than an hour with recalcitrant Senate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who also opposes changing Senate rules.
Manchin later said in a statement: “Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a dangerous course for this nation.”
Both senators went to the White House Thursday night for an additional hour in what the White House later described as an “open and respectful exchange of views.”
Since taking control of Congress and the White House last year, Democrats have vowed to counter a spate of new state legislation inspired by former President Donald Trump‘s false claims of a stolen election that have made voting more difficult . But their efforts have stalled in the tightly divided Senate, where they lack the 60 out of 100 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
For weeks Sinema and Manchin have been under intense pressure to support rule changes that would allow the party to pass its laws by a simple majority – a move both have long resisted.
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.” Her own colleagues were not so charitable.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who once opposed changing Senate rules, said, “She believes the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I sincerely hope that she is right. I fear she is wrong.”
The Democratic Election and Ethics Act would usher in the biggest overhaul of the U.S. elections in a generation, lowering barriers to voting in the name of electoral security, reducing the influence of big money in politics, and limiting party influence in drawing congressional districts. The package would create national voting standards that would trump state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the Justice Department’s ability to oversee electoral laws in states with a history of discrimination.
Biden’s trip to the Capitol, where he served for decades as a Delaware senator, was part of weeks of efforts to shake up stalled legislation. On Tuesday, he delivered a fiery speech in Atlanta in which he likened opponents of the legislation to racist historical figures and told lawmakers they were “judged by history.”
Republicans almost unanimously oppose the law, viewing it as federal overkill that would impair states’ ability to conduct their own elections. And they have pointed out that Democrats opposed changes to the filibuster that Trump sought when he was president.
But for Democrats and Biden, the legislation is viewed as a political imperative. Failure to pass would break a key campaign promise to black voters who helped give Democrats control of the White House and Congress, and would come shortly before the midterm elections when slim Democratic majorities are at stake.
During the closed-door meeting, Biden and the senators engaged in lively conversation, with the president drawing on his own years in the chamber, senators said. He answered questions and comments, including from Manchin, who expressed reluctance to change Senate rules. Biden’s message to senators: It’s an “opportunity to do something that will bring so much good to so many people at a time when it’s so needed,” said Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Democrats have still vowed to force a public showdown over the Senate bill that could stretch for days and carry echoes of civil rights struggles a generation ago that led to some of the most famous filibusters in Senate history.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had initially set Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday Monday as a deadline to either pass the voting bill or consider revising the filibuster rules. But after a Democratic senator tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolated, denying the party a required vote, Schumer canceled a planned Senate recess week and said debate would begin Tuesday instead.
Democrats also changed their legislative strategy as they tried to pressure Manchin and Sinema. With their new approach, which uses a shortcut, they can debate the bill without being blocked by a filibuster — a feat after Republicans used the filibuster four times in recent months to stop deliberation.
The mechanics work as follows: the House of Representatives amended and passed an independent bill that had already been approved by both houses of Congress, and combined the Democrats’ voting proposals into one law. Since this bill has already passed both houses, it can be called up for debate in the Senate with a simple majority, although Senate Republicans can still block a final vote to pass the measure.
“Members of this chamber have been elected to debate and vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of democracy as this one,” Schumer said late Thursday.
Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock questioned the wisdom of Manchin and Sinema’s knee-jerk quest for bipartisanship.
“It can’t be the only important thing,” said Warnock, Georgia’s first black senator. “Slavery was bipartisan. Jim Crow’s segregation was bipartisan. The denial of women’s suffrage was bipartisan.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.
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