President Joe Biden acknowledged for the first time Thursday that Democrats will likely fail to pass voting rights reforms, in the wake of dozens of restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans across the country.
“Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time we can come back and try the second one,” he said. “We missed this time. We missed this time.”
After traveling to Georgia earlier this week — in spite of the protests of several voting rights leaders on the ground there — Biden visited Capitol Hill on Thursday to make a push for Democratic senators to amend filibuster rules, which would have paved the way for two landmark voting reform bills.
But after his meeting with senators, the president indicated that changes to the filibuster rules — and passing the voting rights package — are not looking likely.
“I hope we can get this done, but the honest to god answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said.
Normally a bill requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and pass the Senate. Democrats have only a 50–50 majority, including the tiebreaker, and hoped to carve out a narrow exemption to the filibuster to allow voting rights bills to pass with a simple majority.
At least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, oppose this plan, dropping Democrats short of the votes they would need. Sinema gave a speech Thursday morning saying she supports the voting rights bills, but not changing the Senate rules to pass them. She said nuking the filibuster would contribute to the “disease of division” that has broken American politics.
Democrats appear poised to forge ahead with a vote anyway, knowing they don’t have the numbers. It’s exceedingly rare in the Senate for a majority party to set up a vote it knows it will lose, but Democrats say this issue is unique.
“I think there are certain fundamentals that are beyond the usual sort of strategy approach around here. You’re either for democracy or you’re not,” Sen. Martin Heinrich said. “It’s important to have, frankly, every one of us on the record.”
Republicans are taking a more grounded view of the Democrats’ doomed push.
“It makes perfect political sense,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. “If you’re Joe Biden, you’ve got to show the left that you did everything in your power. If you’re Chuck Schumer, you’ve got to call the question or you’re going to get a primary. If you’re in a purple or a red state, it’s probably good politics for you. So this is perfectly good politics for both sides.”
The voting rights package, named after the late civil rights icon and former member of Congress John Lewis, would roll back dozens of state-level voting access restrictions, create nationwide minimum early voting day standards, make Election Day a federal holiday, and allow the courts and federal government to intervene if a state passes restrictions that target minority groups.
Last year, Republicans put in place 33 laws across 19 states that make voting more restrictive. Voting rights advocates on the ground in Georgia, where several of those bills were enacted, boycotted Biden’s speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, instead calling on him to stay in DC and get the legislation passed that would curb those state measures.
Several of those leaders, from groups including Black Voters Matter, the New Georgia Project, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said they would expect Biden to take action to push the bills along in the days after the speech so that Georgia.
Seemingly in response to that criticism, in an email to those leaders on Wednesday, the White House said the president would attend the caucus meeting on Thursday “to continue to make the case for voting rights as the party considers a vote on election reform and voting legislation” before thanking them for their “work and advocacy on this issue.”
On Thursday, two of the Georgia voting rights leaders who boycotted the president’s Tuesday speech said they still want to see a vote by Monday even if the bills don’t have a chance of passing right now.
“Our expectation is that every senator is put on record as to where they stand,” said James Woodall, former president of the Georgia NAACP. “We have no luxury of, or privilege of, delaying this any longer. And so we fully expect leader Schumer to be consistent in his word in holding this vote sooner rather than later.”
Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, said she expects Biden to work on Sinema and Manchin to make headway.
“He needs to find out what Manchin and Sinema want,” Ufot said. “I’m not in a position to figure that out, but he can, so I think that feels like a next step.”
Ufot and Woodall said they will continue to put pressure on the White House to make these reforms a priority.
“We care deeply about this issue, because fuck these elected officials, we care about our families, we care about our communities, and that doesn’t go away,” Ufot said.
“We’re not going anywhere. And we’re never going to shut up about this.”