WASHINGTON — President Biden expressed doubts that Democrats would pass their election legislation, bowing to political realities that blocked party leaders from any path forward in the Senate, just two days after citing a serious threat for democracy by imploring lawmakers to approve the measure.
“The honest answer to God is I don’t know if we can make it happen,” Biden told reporters Thursday after a closed-door lunch with the Senate Democratic caucus. He said he still had hope for what the party had dubbed its top priority, but added: ‘One thing is certain: Like every other major civil rights bill that has come forward, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time.”
Biden’s pessimistic assessment highlighted the challenges facing Democrats, who are united around a sweeping measure to establish new federal voting standards but divided on whether to change Senate rules. to pass the bill. In the Senate 50-50, Democrats lack the votes to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle and could only be assured of passing their bill if they lowered the threshold for passing the bill to a simple majority. legislation.
Shortly before Mr. Biden’s scheduled lunch with Democrats, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.) visited the Senate to reiterate that she would not support rule changes that remove the 60-vote threshold of the Senate. Changing the filibuster rules would require the support of all Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) later reiterated his own opposition to eliminating the filibuster. The Democrats had bet on their chances of changing the senators’ minds, but the statements extinguished those slim hopes.
“While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that aggravate the underlying disease of division that infects our country,” Ms Sinema said. She cited the split in the Senate and the narrow majority of Democrats in the House as voters asking both parties to “work together and get things done for America.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., NY) had set a deadline of Monday, Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to try to get the ballot bills passed before going forward with the search for modifications to the filibuster. Late Thursday, Schumer changed that plan, saying Democrats would wait to start debate on the measure until Tuesday, citing a potential winter storm and unspecified Covid-19 issues. Democrats need all 50 members present to approve a motion to continue debate on the bill, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) has tested positive for Covid-19 and is in quarantine.
Democrats are pushing to pass changes to election law across the country, which they say are necessary to protect voters’ access to the polls, but Republicans are criticizing it as politically motivated federal excess in the issues it best left to the states.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that during lunch, Mr. Biden focused on speaking directly to the caucus and not on Ms. Sinema’s comments. A person familiar with the matter said the White House was given advance notice of his speech on the ground. Mr. Biden welcomed Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema to the White House on Thursday evening, and they had a frank and respectful exchange of views, an official said.
Some Democrats have expressed frustrations with recalcitrant senators. At lunch, Mr. Biden did not call Ms. Sinema or Mr. Manchin by name, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) said. But, she added, “let’s be real, we’ve all addressed these points to them in the last conferences we’ve had.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D., Ariz.), whom some activists want to challenge Ms. Sinema in a 2024 primary, singled her out in a floor speech. “We will not hesitate to protect our democracy,” he said. “It is high time for the United States Senate and Senator Sinema to do the same.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has criticized efforts to weaken the filibuster, called Sinema’s remarks important. “She, through a remarkable act of political courage, saved the Senate as an institution,” he said.
Democrats have long pushed for measures, which include making Election Day a national holiday and new mail-in voting requirements, but a series of ballot measures passed in GOP-controlled state legislatures have given them a boost. new motivation to act. Republicans call the Democratic moves an effort to grab state power and unfairly malicious requirements, such as voter ID, designed to bolster election integrity.
The current package for the Senate combines “The Free Voting Act” with a separate measure named after late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Since the start of the year, Mr. Biden has staked much of his political capital on the right to vote, which advisers see as a critical issue for the Democratic base, despite doubts about his prospects. Mr Biden’s meeting with Senate Democrats on Thursday was seen as a personal last-ditch attempt to win over the holdouts.
The call follows a fiery speech on Tuesday in which he compared opponents of the vote overhaul to segregationists and traitors, drawing praise from activists skeptical of his engagement on the issue but outrage from Republicans who said that the rhetoric was inappropriate and gained no new support.
On Thursday morning, the Democratic-led House passed a new elections bill to send to the Senate, with a vote expected in the coming days. The new bill, which passed 220-203, consolidates two bills that previously passed the House but were blocked by Republicans in the Senate last year. Asked about her chances of adoption, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) replied, “You have to go ask the Senate for that.”
The fight over voting rules and the filibuster drew dire warnings from both sides.
“If there ever was a power grab, that’s what’s happening in state legislatures right now,” Schumer told the Senate. “Republicans are taking the sacred right to vote away from people, and are targeting it particularly at certain groups, people of color, young people, people in urban areas.”
Mr. McConnell took issue with the Democrats’ claims and their plans to change Senate rules.
“President Biden and the Senate Democrats have shouted, in fact shouted, at the American people that an evil, racist, anti-vote conspiracy will destroy democracy forever unless the Democrats get full control of a single party on the whole government from next week,” he said. . “But do the American people buy it?”
—Eliza Collins and Alex Leary contributed to this article.
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