Biden almost concedes defeat on voting and election bills

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WASHINGTON (AP) — All but acknowledging his defeat, President Joe Biden said Thursday he was “not sure” major elections and Democratic suffrage legislation could pass Congress this year. . He spoke on Capitol Hill after a key Democratic colleague, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, dramatically announced his refusal to agree to change Senate rules to push the bill through a filibuster. republican.

Biden had come to the Capitol to urge Democratic senators in a closed-door meeting, but he was not optimistic when he appeared. He has vowed to continue fighting for sweeping legislation which advocates say is vital to protecting the election.

“The honest answer to God is I don’t know if we can do it,” Biden said. He told reporters, his voice rising, “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged, I will fight.”

Sinema nearly destroyed the bill’s chances minutes earlier, saying just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill that she couldn’t support a “short-sighted” rule change.

She said in a speech to the Senate that the answer to division in the Senate and the country is not to change the filibuster rules so that any party, even her own, can pass controversial bills. . “We must tackle 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. Past forays have done little to advance his other top priority, the “Build Back Better Act” of social and climate change initiatives. Instead, Biden returned to the White House with his languid congressional agenda.

Biden spoke for more than an hour privately with restive Democrats in the Senate, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, 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 perilous journey for this nation.

But Manchin and Sinema traveled to the White House on Thursday evening to try to find a way through, according to three people familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

Since seizing control of Congress and the White House last year, Democrats have pledged to counter a wave of new state laws, inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election, which made it more difficult to vote. But their efforts have stalled in the tightly divided Senate, where they are 60 out of 100 votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster.

For weeks, Sinema and Manchin have been under intense pressure to support rule changes that would allow the party to pass their legislation by a simple majority – a step they have long opposed.

Although Trump and other Republicans also called for filibuster changes when he was president, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Sinema’s speech a significant act of “political courage” which could “save the Senate as an institution”.

His own colleagues were not so charitable.

But Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who once opposed changing Senate rules, said: ‘The way forward is very difficult, especially based on Senator Sinema’s statement today. .” He said: “She thinks the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what is happening in the United States. I sincerely hope she is right. I fear she is wrong.

The Democratic package of voting and ethics legislation would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation, removing barriers to voting enacted in the name of election security, reducing the influence of big money in politics and limiting the partisan influence on the drawing of congressional districts. The package would create national election standards that would override state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the Justice Department’s ability to oversee election laws in states with a history of discrimination.

Biden’s trip to the Capitol, where he served for decades as a senator from Delaware, was part of a weeklong effort to shake up the stalled bill. On Tuesday, he gave a fiery speech in Atlanta, comparing opponents of the legislation to racist historical figures and telling lawmakers they will be “judged by history.”

Republicans are nearly unanimous in opposing the legislation, seeing it as federal overreach that would undermine states’ ability to hold their own elections. And they pointed out that Democrats opposed the filibuster changes that Trump sought when he was president.

But for Democrats and Biden, the legislation is seen as a political imperative. Failure to pass it would violate a major campaign promise to black voters, which helped Democrats gain control of the White House and Congress, and would come just before the midterm elections, when slim Democratic majorities would be stakes.

Democrats have always pledged to force a public showdown over the bill in the Senate, which could drag on for days and echo the civil rights battles a generation ago that led to some of the most filibusters famous in the history of the Senate.

Schumer originally set Martin Luther King Jr.’s Jan. 17 vacation as the deadline to pass voting legislation or consider revising the filibuster rules.

But the Democrats changed their strategy as they sought to pressure Manchin and Sinema. Under their new approach, which uses a procedural shortcut, they will be able to debate the bill without being blocked by a filibuster – a feat after Republicans used the filibuster four times in recent months to halt deliberations. .

The mechanics work like this: The House amended an unrelated bill that had already been approved by both houses of Congress, combining Democrats’ ballot proposals into a single bill. After the House passed the bill on Thursday, the Senate can debate it by a simple majority. But Senate Republicans can still prevent them from holding a final vote.

Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock questioned the wisdom of reflexively seeking bipartisanship.

“That can’t be the only important thing,” said Warnock, who is Georgia’s first black senator. “Slavery was bipartisan. Jim Crow segregation was bipartisan. The denial of women’s suffrage was bipartisan.

“You know what wasn’t bipartisan? Passing the 13th Amendment,” he said, the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

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Associated Press writers Colleen Long and MIchael Balsamo contributed to this report.

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