Democrats’ chances at passing voting rights legislation dimmed after conservative Democratic Sen Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona announced her opposition to changing the filibuster to pass legislation on Thursday.
Ms Sinema gave her speech on the Senate floor ahead of President Joe Biden’s meeting with Democratic senators, saying that while she opposed Democrats’ attempts to curb voter suppression on the state level, changing the filibuster would worsen political division in the United States.
“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold on a party line with the thinnest of possible majorities to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office,” she said.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said he was on the floor when Ms Sinema gave her statement and expressed disappointment in her remarks.
“I was sitting her on the floor and I was expecting her to say what she did,” he told The Independent. “If that is her position, I’m disappointed but not surprised.”
Still, Mr Durbin was hopeful that Democrats could pass voting rights legislation.
“I think that’s still on tap, I don’t have any reason to believe there will not be,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the House of Representatives passed an omnibus voting rights bill that combined Democrats’ proposed Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on a party-line vote.
Mr Biden, who earlier in the week gave a speech in Atlanta endorsing changing the Senate rules to pass voting rights, was already planning to come to the Senate to urge Democrats to act on the legislation. After his meeting with Democrats in the Russell Senate Office Building, named for the late Sen Richard Russell who opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the president was simultaneously deflated and forceful.
“You all ask questions about complicated subjects like ‘can you get this done?’ I hope we can get this done,” Mr Biden told reporters. “The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know if we can get this done.”
Mr Biden cited the fact that previous pieces of civil rights legislation failed before they ultimately passed and that Democrats can try another time.
“We missed this time,” he said, citing the fact that state legislatures across the country are changing laws about who can vote but also who gets to count the vote, repeating the words “count the vote” three times.
“It’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote,” Mr Biden said raising his voice. “That’s what makes this so different than anything else we’ve ever done.”
Mr Manchin has repeatedly made overtures to Republicans to craft compromise legislation on voting rights after the Supreme Court effectively nullified the section of the 1965 law that created the formula to determine which jurisdictions across the country required pre-clearance before they change rules around voting.
But Mr Manchin’s efforts have failed to muster enough GOP support to break a filibuster.
Sen Jon Tester, a fellow moderate Democrat from Montana, said Republicans have proven intransigent on voting rights.
“That’s why, 15 years ago, you could get Republicans to vote for John Lewis but you can’t get any votes for it today is because somebody has laid down a red line and said don’t cross it,” he said. When asked whether Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema can change on the filibuster, he said “I don’t know, I think we just need to continue.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday expressed frustration with Mr Manchin’s emphasis on bipartisanship, with House Majority Whip James Clyburn specifically emphasising how the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which gave formerly enslaved Black Americans the right to vote passed on a straight party line.
“So we take exception, grave exception, when anybody tells us that legislation cannot have credibility unless it is bipartisan,” he said. “You are saying to us that the 15th Amendment is without credibility.”
Democratic Sen Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who has been a vocal supporter of changing the rules around the filibuster to pass voting rights, repeated the sentiment and said the only way to pass voting rights was rule changes.
“I think that when you look at the history of our country, bipartisanship is an important ideal but it can’t be the only important thing,” he said. “After all, slavery was bipartisan, Jim Crow segregation was bipartisan, the denial of women’s suffrage was bipartisan. You know what wasn’t bipartisan? The 13th amendment, which gave us the Equal Protection Clause. The 15th amendment was passed on a party line vote. The time comes when you have to do what’s right.”
The disappointment for Democrats comes as they face the midterm elections in November and potentially losing their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate. Similarly, Mr Biden, who was largely elected because of widespread support of Black voters, has seen his poll numbers drop.
As Mr Biden was closing his remarks, he reiterated his commitment to passing voting rights.
“I don’t know if we’ll get it done but I know one thing,” he said. “As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I am in the White House, as long as I am engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change how these legislatures have moving.”
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