Biden voices uncertainty about passing voting rights bills after meeting with Democrats

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday expressed uncertainty over whether his party would be able to pass voting rights legislation through Congress after he emerged from a closed-door luncheon with Senate Democrats.

Despite his attempt at making a direct appeal to Democrats, Biden appeared less confident than before about overcoming the hurdles of getting the measures approved.

“I hope we can get this done,” Biden told reporters on Capitol Hill following the meeting. “But the honest to god answer is, I don’t know whether we can get this done.”

“One thing [is] for certain — like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time,” he added. “We missed this time.”

State legislatures continue to change their laws that dictate who gets to count votes in elections, Biden said, adding that Republicans are pushing “election subversion.”

“But I know one thing, as long as I have a breath in me and as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have moved,” he said.

His remarks came a few hours after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., made clear that she won’t vote to gut the filibuster rule to ease passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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Sinema said she supports the two bills but continues to favor the 60-vote rule, which Democrats have no hope of clearing due to overwhelming Republican opposition to the bills. Her remarks signaled that the aggressive efforts to persuade her to change Senate rules have failed.

“There’s no need for me to restate my longstanding support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation,” Sinema said on the Senate floor in a speech about “the disease of division” in the United States. “It is the view I continue to hold.”

Sinema’s position means the two voting bills have no viable path to passage.

Biden met behind closed doors with Senate Democrats during their regular caucus lunch. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the president would “make the strong case” to lawmakers that he made publicly in his speech in Atlanta on Monday, in which he called for an end to the filibuster to allow for passage of federal voting rights bills.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will also both be “working the phones” to put pressure on reluctant lawmakers, Psaki said.

Prior to Biden’s arrival Thursday, the House voted 220-203 along party lines to pass the two voting rights bills in one package. The Senate will receive it as a “message,” enabling Democrats to open debate on the package with a simple majority, without Republican votes.

But they’re guaranteed to hit a roadblock when they need 60 votes to break a filibuster and end debate in the 50-50 Senate. The Freedom to Vote Act has no Republican support. The John Lewis bill has one GOP backer: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Adding to the complications, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Thursday that he tested positive for Covid earlier this week and is isolating at home, which means without him or a GOP absence, Democrats wouldn’t have the votes to bring the voting rights bills to the floor over united GOP opposition.

Democrats have been discussing a rule change in the Senate that would allow them to circumvent a GOP blockade of the bills. But that would require unanimous support in the caucus.

Apart from Sinema, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also supports the filibuster rule, saying last week it was his “absolute preference” to find a bipartisan way to advance the bills.

In a post on Medium Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of Democratic leadership, stressed that her party shouldn’t let the filibuster stop them from passing historic reforms.

“To be absolutely clear: we cannot let the filibuster stop us from ever debating voting rights or any other issue one member might find objectionable,” Murray wrote. “If it’s the filibuster or democracy, I’ll choose our democracy. If it’s Senate rules or a Senate that works for the American people, I’ll choose a Senate that works.”

In an op-ed for USA Today, former President Barack Obama wrote that the filibuster has no basis in the Constitution and has in recent years become a “routine way” for the Senate minority to block progress on issues supported by a majority of voters.

“We can’t allow it to be used to block efforts to protect our democracy. That’s why I fully support President Joe Biden’s call to modify Senate rules as necessary to make sure pending voting rights legislation gets called for a vote,” he wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said that he wants to pass the voting rights legislation on or before Monday — Martin Luther King Jr., Dayand would vote to change the rules if needed.

The Freedom to Vote Act would create a set of standards for federal elections to ensure that voters have similar access to the ballot box nationwide. It would require states to offer a minimum number of days for early voting and the ability to vote by mail for any reason. It would also make Election Day a national holiday.

The bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., would update the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark legislation that barred discriminatory election laws.

Jane C. Timm contributed.

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