WASHINGTON – All but conceding defeat, President Joe Biden said Thursday he's now unsure the Democrats' major 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 the bill past a Republican filibuster.
Biden had come to the Capitol to prod Democratic senators in a closed-door meeting, but he was not optimistic when he emerged. He vowed to keep fighting for the sweeping legislation that advocates say is vital to protecting elections.
“The honest-to-God answer is I don't know whether we can get this done,” Biden said. 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 minutes earlier, declaring just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill that she could not support a “shortsighted” rules change.
She said in a speech on the Senate floor that the answer to divisiveness in the Senate and in the country 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 returned to the White House with his 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.
Manchin said in a statement later: “Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation.”
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.
For weeks, Sinema and Manchin have come under intense pressure to support rules changes that would allow the party to pass their legislation with a simple majority – a step both have long opposed.
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.”
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.
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.
But for Democrats and Biden, the legislation is viewed as 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.
Democrats have still pledged to force a public showdown over the bill on the Senate floor, which 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.