President Biden for a second time in two months on Thursday saw his agenda limited by a senator from his own party, curbing the White House’s influence and power and raising questions about what accomplishments his party will bring to this year’s midterms.
This time it was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) effectively pulling the plug on Biden’s hopes of taking action on voting rights. Sinema said she would not vote to change the filibuster despite her support for voting rights legislation in a floor speech just before Biden was to speak to the Senate Democratic Caucus.
It cut off any slim hope of movement ahead of the high-profile meeting in an effective rebuke of the president.
Just weeks ago, it was fellow centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) cutting the legs from the White House with a surprise statement on “Fox News Sunday” that he would oppose Biden’s Build Back Better climate and social spending legislation already approved by the House.
Manchin on Thursday followed Sinema’s move with his own statement reiterating his opposition to changing the filibuster.
Sinema’s floor speech, like Manchin’s “Fox News Sunday” appearance, echoed other times in American history when senators have dramatically thwarted the plans of the president leading their party. The late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) notably gave a thumbs-down in 2017 on the Senate floor, voting against ObamaCare repeal legislation, which all but completely ended former President Trump’s efforts to wipe out the Affordable Care Act.
The developments on Thursday left Biden sounding pessimistic.
“The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we get this done,” the president told reporters after walking out of a lengthy meeting with Democratic senators.
“I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure,” he conceded.
The president invited Manchin and Sinema to the White House for another meeting on Thursday evening, but the trio didn’t announce any significant progress coming out of it.
Senate Democrats are now facing the realization that they may have to accept a smaller list of accomplishments than what they hoped for at the start of last year.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Biden did everything he could to court Manchin and Sinema. “We all did,” he said.
And he insisted that Biden’s bully pulpit is still effective, though he acknowledged “it’s not effective on every issue.”
“It never has been in presidential history effective on every issue,” he added.
Biden lamented at a speech at the Atlanta University Center Consortium Tuesday that his power is limited when any Democrat in the Senate can deal his legislative agenda a crushing blow.
“I’ve been pretty good at working with senators my whole career. But man, when you got 51 presidents, it gets harder. Any one can change the outcome,” he said.
Biden has met repeatedly with Manchin and Sinema, in one-on-one meetings and in group sessions, to build rapport with them.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) quipped last month that Manchin “has his own parking space at the White House, he’s been there so often.”
Biden’s senior advisers agreed to drop plans to raise the corporate tax rate and the top marginal tax rate for individuals in a bid to win Sinema’s backing for Build Back Better and agreed to drop a national paid family leave program and the Clean Electricity Performance Program to win over Manchin.
Biden earlier in the week appeared to lose his patience with the behind-the-scenes approach he has used to push his agenda on Capitol Hill when he slapped a podium in Atlanta and declared, “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months, I’m tired of being quiet.”
The president ratcheted up his rhetoric by comparing the opponents of voting rights legislation to the opponents of civil rights for African Americans: the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Bull Connor, Birmingham’s onetime commissioner of public safety who turned police dogs and protesters on civil rights protesters; and former Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
That prompted defensive responses from Sinema and Manchin, who insisted they support voting rights even though they’re not willing to change the Senate’s filibuster rule that Republicans are using to block the legislation.
Sinema argued that new state laws restricting access to voting “are symptoms” of the “more deeply rooted problem” of political divisions in the country that getting rid of the filibuster would only make worse.
Manchin said that “allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel onto the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart.”
A Democratic senator who attended the closed-door meeting with Biden Thursday said the president spent part of the time explaining his evolution from being a supporter of the filibuster to calling for its abolition in order to pass election reform.
The lawmaker said Biden warned that Republican state legislatures are trying to tilt the nation’s election rules in their favor and disenfranchise millions of Americans likely to vote for Democrats.
“He’s made the decision that they’re going to try steal the next election and if we don’t stand in the way there might not be a democracy left. I get it, but Sinema and Manchin view the stakes differently,” the source said.
Moments before Biden met with lawmakers, Sinema announced that while she supports the Democrats’ election reform package, she will not vote along party lines to change the Senate’s rules to circumvent a Republican filibuster.
“While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said on the floor.
Manchin praised Biden’s speech before the caucus as “very passionate” and a “very good speech.”
But moments later he issued a public statement declaring that weakening the Senate filibuster rule would be a mistake.
“We must never, ever, ever tear down the only wall, the necessary fence, that this nation has against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority,” he said.