Joe Biden was in crisis talks with Senate Democratic rebels Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema at the White House on Thursday night after they thwarted his high-stakes efforts to push voting rights legislation through Congress, according to several reports.
Even before the US president arrived on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon to join Democratic senators for their regular lunch gathering, in a diplomatic public offensive, Sinema of Arizona bluntly reiterated that she would not support any change to filibuster rules to get voting rights passed.
Her surprise last-minute move with a speech effectively killed her party’s hope of passing the most sweeping voting rights protections in a generation.
And in a stark joint demonstration of their opposition, Manchin of West Virginia later praised Sinema and released his own statement confirming he also would not vote to change the filibuster.
A clearly-exasperated Biden concluded after his senate lunch meeting: “I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure.”
Not long after, he suffered another blow when the supreme court blocked his administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.
By the evening, however, Biden was huddled back at the White House in last-ditch talks with Sinema and Manchin, CNN and Reuters reported, citing unnamed sources.
Sinema had taken to the Senate floor around noon opposing any changes to the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation, while Democrats currently hold a bare majority in the 100-seat chamber and two voting rights bills are stalled.
“While I continue to support these [voting rights] bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said.
She added: “We must address the disease itself, the disease of division, to protect our democracy, and it cannot be achieved by one party alone. It cannot be achieved solely by the federal government. The response requires something greater and, yes, more difficult than what the Senate is discussing today.”
Sinema’s speech came at an extremely perilous moment for US democracy. Republican lawmakers in 19 states have enacted 34 new laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, that impose new voting restrictions.
They have also passed a slew of bills that seek to inject more partisan control into election administration and the counting of votes, an unprecedented trend experts are deeply concerned about and call election subversion. Many of those measures have been passed in state legislatures on simple majority, party-line votes.
For months, Sinema and Manchin have staunchly defended the filibuster, which stands as the major hurdle to voting rights reform. No Republicans support either the voting rights bills or changing the rules of the filibuster, so Democrats cannot do anything unless both senators are on board.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, has pledged a vote on the measure and rule changes by Monday, a public holiday to celebrate the civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
The opposition damages Biden, who gave a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday calling on Democrats to support the bill.
On Thursday he said: “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time. We missed this time. We missed this time,” he added.
Raphael Warnock, a first term Democratic senator of Georgia, whose victory last January helped Democrats win control of the Senate, said: “The state of Georgia is ground zero for these voter suppression bills that we’re seeing emerge all across the country.”
He added: “This is a defining moral moment. It is the most important thing we can do this Congress.”
Civil rights leaders quickly denounced Sinema after her speech on Thursday.
“History will remember Senator Sinema unkindly. While she remains stubborn in her ‘optimism’, Black and brown Americans are losing their right to vote,” said Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, who had met with Biden and vice president Kamala Harris on their high-profile joint visit to Georgia.
“She’s siding with the legacy of Bull Connor and George Wallace instead of the legacy of my father and all those who fought to make real our democracy,” he said, citing the notorious segregationists.
Signa Oliver, an activist with the Arizona chapter of Indivisible, a grassroots group, said: “Arizonans value leaders who can compromise and work across the aisle, but let me be clear: the filibuster is non-negotiable. Indivisibles, like myself, worked tooth-and-nail to get Sinema elected in 2018 – we made calls, registered voters and knocked on doors in the 120F weather.”
Jared Huffman, a Democratic congressman from California, tweeted at Sinema and Manchin: “Shame on you.”
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, praised Sinema’s speech as an act of “political courage” that could “save the Senate as an institution”, according to the Associated Press.
For months, Democrats have championed two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The former measure would overhaul federal election rules to set baseline requirements for voter access.
It would require 15 days of early voting, as well as same-day and automatic registration. It also includes provisions that make it harder to remove election officials without justification, and would make it easier for voters to go to court to ensure their votes aren’t thrown out.
The latter bill would require states where there is repeated evidence of recent voting discrimination to get changes approved by the federal government before they go into effect. It updates and restores a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that was struck down by the supreme court in 2013.
The US House passed a mega-bill on Thursday morning that combined both of those measures into a single bill. It was a procedural move designed to allow the Senate to quickly hear and debate the measure.