Biden to huddle with Senate Democrats as voting bill on brink of defeat

President Biden will meet with Senate Democrats Thursday as the party’s high-stakes push to change the filibuster and pass voting legislation is on the brink of defeat.  

Biden’s trip to Capitol Hill marks the first time he has met face-to-face with the Senate Democratic Caucus since July and comes two days after he traveled to Georgia to publicly push for his party to pass voting rights legislation even if they must do so without GOP votes.  

But Democrats don’t yet have a path to accomplishing that and, absent a shift by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), are poised to fall short.  

Senators acknowledge that while Biden wants to show that he’s committed to passing election legislation, there’s little expectation that Democrats will emerge from the meeting with a deal that unites all 50 members of the caucus.

“The president is not only demonstrating the United States Democratic senators but to the American people that he is all-in on this,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “But there is certainly no expectation that he is going to win tomorrow.”  

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has been involved in the Senate negotiations, declined to point to the meeting as a hard deadline for a rules change proposal, saying that the “pieces will come when they come.”  

The in-person lobbying effort comes as Democrats are struggling to land an agreement on changing the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation to advance, with Manchin and Sinema as holdouts.  

“How should I say this — I wish that we were closer,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who has been involved in the talks. “We’re not ready for prime time.”  

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said there are “intense discussions” going on but acknowledged the reality that Democrats’ push to change the filibuster could fail.  

“I don’t want to delude your listeners, this is an uphill fight,” Schumer said during a Center for American Progress event.

The fight over voting rights legislation is linked to a fight over the filibuster because Republicans have used the 60-vote hurdle to previously block two sweeping election bills and a third piece of legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  

Schumer, in a memo to the caucus on Wednesday afternoon, outlined the first piece of the upcoming fight: how they bring up the voting rights legislation.  

The House is sending the Senate a bill that combines the Freedom to Vote Act, which would overhaul federal elections, and voting rights legislation. Schumer is then expected to use a procedural shortcut that will let Democrats bypass the 60 votes typically needed to start debate on legislation.  

That will let Democrats have a formal debate on the voting bill on the Senate floor. But the legislation will still need to clear a 60-vote hurdle before it can pass, with Republicans expected to block it.  

Schumer has vowed that once that happens, he’ll move to change the legislative filibuster by Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But underscoring the uncertainty, Schumer hasn’t yet outlined how or when he will do that, or how Democrats will propose changing the rules.  

Democrats haven’t yet decided if they will pursue a talking filibuster — which would allow opponents to delay a bill for as long as they could hold the floor, but the legislation would ultimately be able to pass with a simple majority — or create a carveout that exempts voting rights legislation from the 60-vote requirement.  

They are also mulling smaller changes, including getting rid of the 60-vote threshold normally needed to start debate or shifting the onus from needing 60 votes to break a filibuster to 41 votes to sustain a filibuster.  

Whether to do a talking filibuster or a carveout has divided even Democrats who are in favor of changing the filibuster. 

Some Democrats prefer a carveout because it’s a more limited roll back of the filibuster. But Manchin and Sinema have been particularly wary of the idea, believing that it opens the door to gutting the filibuster. There are also tricky procedural questions about how to structure a talking filibuster.  

“That’s in the serious discussion phase,” Cardin said. “I don’t think it’s gelled yet.”  

Manchin and Sinema have been dug in on their opposition to changing the Senate’s rules, and neither appeared publicly moved by Biden’s speech.  

Manchin called the president’s remarks in Georgia a “good speech.” Sinema didn’t release a statement, but a spokesperson pointed back to comments her office made in December reiterating that she is supportive of voting rights, including voting previously for both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.  

“Senator Sinema also continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government,” a spokesperson said.  

Because Democrats will need to change the filibuster without GOP support, they’ll need total unity from all 50 of their members to invoke the so-called nuclear option.

Manchin has floated more modest proposals that he could support, including getting rid of the 60-vote hurdle to start debate, making it easier to get bills that get significant support in committee a vote on the Senate floor or changing the requirement needed to break a filibuster from 60 votes to a three-fifths majority. He’s also acknowledged that a talking filibuster is a part of the discussions Democrats are having.

But Manchin has long opposed using the nuclear option and has repeatedly said, as recently as this week, that changes to the Senate rules need to be bipartisan.  

“We need some good rules changes. We can do that together. But you change the rules with two-thirds of the people that are present so … Democrats, Republicans changing the rules to make the place work better. Getting rid of the filibuster doesn’t make it work better,” he said.  

Democrats face a Herculean task of not only getting both on board with changing the filibuster but doing so along party lines. Other Democrats, including Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.), also haven’t endorsed a specific rules change proposal or using the nuclear option to enact the change.  

Democrats working to get Manchin and Sinema on board acknowledge that their concerns aren’t completely identical, meaning that they each have their own challenges in the rules discussions.  

“They have different concerns so the discussions with them have been … often separate, because they do have some different points of view,” Kaine said.  

Kaine said that the group hasn’t yet asked for a commitment from Manchin or Sinema because they are “still working on options” and that the two senators are still offering ideas.  

“It would be premature,” he said, “to say, ‘OK here is this final thing that we need you on.’”

Tags Ben Cardin Chuck Schumer Filibuster Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Tim Kaine voting rights

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