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Biden says he doesn't know if voting rights legislation can pass

President Biden leaves a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
President Biden leaves a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Updated January 13, 2022 at 4:52 PM ET

Democrats in Washington are beginning to accept the reality that they do not have the votes to pass President Biden's long-shot effort to enact new voting rights bills.

President Biden traveled to Capitol Hill on Thursday in an attempt to sway Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D.-W.Va., to agree to change the Senate filibuster in order to pass the legislation.

Biden conceded after the closed-door meeting that his efforts likely were not enough.

"I don't know whether we can get this done," Biden told reporters after the meeting. "But one thing for certain — like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try a second time."

Biden said that if the effort fails this week, he will keep on pushing to stop states from passing restrictive voting laws that Democrats say inhibit ballot access. He said it is also "about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote."

He added: "But I know one thing: As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have moved."

Sinema and Manchin reiterate stances on filibuster

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., effectively ended Democrats' hopes of changing the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said she supports the voting rights bills under consideration but is unwilling to change her position on the filibuster for them to pass.

Biden's meeting with Democrats came less than an hour after Sinema made it clear that she will not support plans to weaken the filibuster to reach those goals.

Sinema reiterated her long-standing support for the filibuster in a speech on the Senate floor, where she defended the 60-vote requirement for most legislation as a critical tool to maintain the system of checks and balances in the Senate.

Sinema said she supports voting reforms and the specific voting rights bills under consideration but added she is unwilling to change her position on the filibuster for them to pass.

"These bills help treat the symptoms of the disease, but they do not fully address the disease itself," Sinema said. "And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country."

Sinema went on to criticize lawmakers who try to consolidate power and bemoaned the lack of true negotiation and bipartisanship in Washington. She also argued that any attempt to undermine the filibuster, which might make it easier for Democrats to pass legislation now, would grant the same power to Republicans when they regain control of the Senate in the future. Sinema said that this could create wild swings in public policy that would be bad for the country.

"American politics are cyclical, and the granting of power in Washington, D.C., is exchanged regularly by the voters from one party to another," Sinema said. "What is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross section of Americans, a guardrail inevitably viewed as an obstacle by whoever holds the Senate majority but which in reality ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process."

After Biden's meeting with Democrats, Manchin released a statement that "reiterated his long-held commitment to protecting the filibuster and the input of the Senate minority."

Manchin wrote: "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 – especially when one party controls both Congress and the White House. As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster."

McConnell praises Sinema

Only two Democrats sat in the Senate chamber to listen to Sinema's remarks. Several Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his top deputy, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., were present for the speech.

McConnell later told reporters he was pleased with Sinema's remarks.

"She literally saved the Senate as an institution," McConnell said. "It was an act of conspicuous political courage."

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, helped lead Democrats' efforts to persuade Sinema and Manchin to support the filibuster change. He is one of several in the Democratic Caucus who used to back the filibuster but have changed their position on it with regard to voting rights.

King told reporters he does not share McConnell's view on Sinema.

"She believes that the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what's going on in the states," King said. "I hope, profoundly, that she's right. I fear that she's wrong."

Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.