Biden voting rights push scotched by Democrats Sinema, Manchin

Biden voting rights push scotched by Democrats Sinema, Manchin

(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden arrives to deliver remarks on voting rights during a speech on the grounds of Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., January 11, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Steve Holland and Richard Cowan

(Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s attempt to rally Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to alter Senate rules and pass voting-rights laws was stymied even before he arrived, by opposition from a key moderate lawmaker from Arizona.

U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday — less than an hour before Biden’s lunchtime arrival — that the ‘filibuster rule’ that allows a minority of senators to block legislation was necessary to prevent worsening political divisions in the country.

After Biden left the Capitol following his meeting with Democrats, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin joined Sinema in opposing changes the the filibuster.

As he left the Capitol, Biden acknowledged his party may not succeed in getting a voting rights bill passed.

“I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure,” Biden told reporters. “But one thing for certain: With every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we missed the first time, we can come back and try it a second time.”

Biden and many fellow Democrats have ratcheted up their campaign to pass voting-rights legislation after spending much of his first year in office on infrastructure and spending bills focused on COVID-19 relief, infrastructure and social safety-net programs.

They are pushing a new bill that they say would protect access to the ballot, particularly for minority voters, at a time when Republican-dominated states are enacting a wave of new restrictions ahead of the Nov. 8 congressional elections.

Non-white voters in modern elections have historically voted for Democratic candidates for federal office.

The bill passed in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday, but to overcome universal Republican opposition in the Senate, the chamber’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 of the 100 senators to agree on most legislation, would need to be changed.

“This is a defining moral moment,” Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock said. “I was heartened by the words of the president.”

Independent Senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, said he thought Biden made a powerful case.

“It looks like the path forward is very difficult, particularly based on Senator Sinema’s statement today,” he said. “She believes that the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I hope profoundly that she’s right. I fear that she’s wrong.”

Democrats, who hold just 50 seats in the Senate, remain divided on how to get around the rule that has hampered them.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday outlined a strategy to ensure a Senate floor debate on voting rights, after three separate attempts last year were stymied by Republicans.

The House repackaged and passed two elections-related bills as one, sending it to the Senate under a special procedure preventing Republicans from blocking debate. The bill was approved along party lines.

If Republicans remain opposed, that bill would not pass the Senate unless all Democrats agree to change the filibuster, Schumer said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday reiterated that Republicans oppose voting-rights legislation and changes to the filibuster.

Democratic former President Barack Obama wrote in a USA Today opinion piece on Thursday that the filibuster rule has become a common tool for the chamber’s minority to block important progress on issues supported by the 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,” Obama wrote.

McConnell also criticized Biden for a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday pushing for an overhaul of the filibuster to pass voting rights bills, calling it “incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office.”

Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote.

Biden voting rights push scotched by Democrats Sinema, Manchin