Biden defends agenda in press conference as voting rights heads for a likely failure

Comments come as the president delivered his first news conference of the year

Eric Garcia
Thursday 20 January 2022 04:39
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President Joe Biden leans over microphone and slowly whispers to female journalist
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President Joe Biden defended his first year in office at a press conference as Democrats’ voting rights bill is set to fail because of objections within his own party.

As Mr Biden was delivering a news conference in the East Room, Senate Democrats’ plan to enact a talking filibuster as a means to end the stalemate on passing a new version of the Voting Rights Act was headed to a failure because of the objections of Sen Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Mr Manchin’s opposition to Mr Biden’s proposed Build Back Better act effectively killed the bill in the iteration that passed the House of Representatives.

But Mr Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he is confident that large parts of his proposed Build Back Better law can pass through the Senate despite opposition from Mr Manchin.

“I'm confident we will get pieces, big chunks, of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” he told reporters.

Mr Biden’s words come as he tries to reset negotiations in his proposed social spending bill after Mr Manchin announced his opposition to the legislation in December. Democrats had previously accommodated the West Virginia Democrat who hails from a state where former president Donald Trump won every county.

The Democrats’ proposed legislation passed the House in November and includes everything from an expanded child tax credit, child care, pre-K education, home care for elderly people and people with disabilities and provisions to combat climate change. But Mr Manchin has raised concerns about the cost and the expanded child tax credit.

Democrats need every one of their 50 Senators to pass the bill through what is called budget reconciliation, which allows for the bill to sidestep the 60-vote filibuster threshold for legislation related to spending.

Mr Biden had touted the fact that child poverty had been significantly slashed. But January marks the first month since July that families did not receive the expanded child tax credit payments that includes $300 for young children and $250 for children up to 17 years old.

At the same time, he said that voters would back Democrats because they said they are the ones who are making sure elections are fair and legitimate compared to the Republican Party.

Mr Biden reiterated the fact Build Back better would not survive in one piece.

“It’s clear to me that we’re going to have to probably break it up,” he told reporters. “It’s clear that we would be able to get support for $500-plus billion for energy and the environment.”

The lack of cohesion among the Democratic caucus is not only an impediment to the party’s plans on social spending, but also their plans on voting rights. On Wednesday, the Senate began debate on voting rights legislation and planned to initiate a talking filibuster as a means of passing voting rights with only 51 votes.

But Mr Manchin and fellow conservative Democrat Sen Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have opposed changes to the filibuster to pass voting rights.

Mr Biden also took exception to the idea that he over-promised to the American people when he came into office.

“I don't think I've overpromised at all,” he said. “One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country.”

He also addressed criticism from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who took umbrage in a speech on the Senate floor for the president comparing Republicans to segregationists and racists like Bull Connor and Jefferson Davis.

“Tell me if you think I called anyone who voted on the side of the position taken by Bull Connor that they were Bull Connor,” he said. “That is an interesting reading of English. I assume you got into journalism because you like to write.”

Mr Biden added that he did not realise – despite having pledged when he ran for president in 2020 that Republicans would have “an epiphany” once Mr Trump lost – that the GOP would obstruct him at every step.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” he said. “Think about this. What are Republicans for? What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.”

He also took exception to Mr McConnell’s opposition.

“What’s Mitch for? What’s he for on immigration?” Mr Biden said. “What’s he for dealing with Russia that’s different than I’m proposing than many of his Republican colleagues?”

Mr Biden also responded to criticism from Sen Mitt Romney that Mr Biden had not reached out to him on voting rights, noting that he was busy trying to work within his own Democratic caucus.

The president assailed Republicans for still being afraid of Mr Trump.

“Did you ever think that one man out of office could intimidate an entire party where they’re unwilling to take any vote contrary to what he thinks should be taken for fear of being defeated in a primary,” he said.

When asked about Black voters, who were integral to him winning the Democratic nomination, Mr Biden said he continued to look out for their interests, despite the fact that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has remained stalled.

“There is a timing that is not of one’s own choice,” he said, but rather that is “dictated by events that are happening in country and around the world as to what the focus is.”

He stressed that his administration would continue to tackle Covid-19 and not send the economy back into a shutdown or close schools again.

“Some people may call what’s happening now a ‘new normal.’ I call it a job not yet finished,” he said. “It will get better, we’re moving toward a time when Covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily lives.”

At the same time, Mr Biden spoke at length about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the crisis in Ukraine, as he said that he understood what the Russian president wanted.

“I’m not so sure he is certain what he is going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” he said, adding that Mr Putin might be happy with a “minor incursion.” That prompted Press Secretary Jen Psaki to clarify his support for Ukraine.

“President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” Ms Psaki said in a statement.

Republicans for their part were not too complimentary.

“Joe Biden showed how deeply out of touch he is, claiming that the struggles Americans are facing each day aren’t real. He refused to take responsibility for his failures, but Americans know Biden is to blame and no amount of finger pointing can change that. Biden and the Democrats just don’t care.”

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