WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats confronted a narrowing set of options Monday for moving ahead with their ambitious agenda, as the reality set in that they would not be able to maneuver past rules that empower Republicans to block most of their legislative proposals.
Unequivocal statements from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia on Sunday that he would oppose a broad voting rights bill and never vote to end the legislative filibuster cast a cloud over a Washington tenuously controlled by Manchin’s party. They forced Democrats to weigh a two-track strategy in which they would be reduced to holding symbolic votes to spotlight Republican intransigence on their highest priorities and limiting their legislative hopes to whatever could be muscled through under fast-track budget reconciliation rules.
Publicly, Democrats said they were not giving up on the voting rights legislation, nor would they confine their legislative agenda to measures that had significant numbers of Republican supporters. But they conceded that they were rethinking how to move forward in a 50-50 Senate where their most important swing vote had effectively declared that he would not support any measure that lacked Republican support.
“Right now we should assume that HR 1 is not going to pass the Senate, so we need to figure out what can,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said of the voting rights measure, also known as the For the People Act.(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)At the White House, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, told reporters Monday that Biden believes “that we need to move forward,” but could not say how he proposed to do so.
“We will stay lockstep with Democratic leadership on what that looks like from here, but I don’t have anything to preview about the next steps,” she said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has set up a series of votes in the next three weeks that he says will test Republicans’ willingness to compromise, including on pay equity between men and women and the voting rights measure. Leaders will also take up Manchin’s suggestion that they proceed on a more limited voting rights bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, though that measure lacks the support of the 10 Republicans who would be needed to advance it past a filibuster.
“There is a huge onus on him now to show that this is the case and that he can bring people together to address the problems that he himself identifies as being an issue,” Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist, said of Manchin. Otherwise, “he is going to be personally holding up the things that he believes in.”
If those efforts fall to Republican filibusters, Democrats hope Manchin and other reluctant party members will revisit their positions.
“We do need to start testing this idea that the filibuster promotes bipartisanship,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who is trying to find 10 Republicans to back legislation imposing universal background checks on gun buyers. “I would hope that everyone is open to having their theories proved wrong if they don’t have evidence to prove their theories right.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, dismissed Democrats’ strategy as “an agenda transparently designed to fail — and fail they will.”
For several months, work on a range of issues beyond voting rights, including climate change, immigration and pay equity, was proceeding as if the Senate could change the rules on the filibuster if necessary. A separate effort was underway to bring Manchin on board as the 50th vote for the voting rights measure.
On Monday, reality had begun to set in.
And that reality will mean that where possible, Biden will have to use executive actions to achieve many of his goals, such as reimposing strict regulations on power plants, automobiles and trucks to combat climate change.
And Senate Democrats will have to use a budget rule called reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster of tax increases, infrastructure projects, measures to combat climate change and social welfare spending on health care, universal preschool and higher education.
Activist groups could hardly contain their anger.
“Joe Manchin should worry about what history will say on where he stood when voting rights were under attack,” said Stasha Rhodes, an organizer of a coalition pressing for voting rights protections, Just Democracy.
Schumer said Monday that he had no intention of shelving the voting rights bill, which would nullify laws passed by 14 Republican-controlled state legislatures to curtail early and mail-in voting, empower partisan poll watching and give elected legislatures more power over election outcomes. Senate Democrats were to meet Tuesday to discuss the path forward, the same day Manchin was set to meet with Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, and Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, to hear their pleas for his support.
Regardless of Manchin’s position, Schumer said a vote would be called the week of June 24, as planned, “to protect voting rights and American democracy.”
“My colleagues need to be put on the record and held accountable,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Monday.
At the same time, Biden and Senate Democratic leaders were working to keep Manchin on board with a push for a major infrastructure package. Biden was scheduled to speak again Tuesday with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the lead Republican negotiator, to discuss the scope of an infrastructure bill and how to pay for it. And senators were engaging Manchin on potential enticements for his vote, such as a long-sought clean manufacturing initiative that has already been incorporated in the Finance Committee’s provisions to pay for spending on roads, bridges, tunnels and transit.
Still, Democrats had to concede that their initial efforts to sway Manchin on perhaps their highest priority — the voting rights measure — had fallen flat after a weekslong effort. Democrats had been pursuing an inside-outside approach, deploying liberal organizations and civil rights activists to pressure Manchin politically, while small groups of senators reached out to him privately to identify his substantive concerns with the voting rights bill and what could be tweaked or jettisoned to win him over.
But Manchin did not lodge any specific policy objections that could be resolved. He simply wanted at least one Republican to support the bill — effectively handing a veto to the minority party.
Democrats do have options. They could, for instance, break the For the People Act into separate measures to expand voting rights, rein in campaign finance abuses and restore ethical standards and transparency in the executive branch shattered by Donald Trump.
Blumenthal said if Manchin held firm, conversations about legislative strategy would pick up steam, but he stressed that he did not want to break up the bill.
“These measures are about ending campaign finance corruption and political self-aggrandizement in a way that is fundamental to preserving our democracy, along with preserving access to the franchise, which is central to our democracy,” he said. “Maybe there will be choices ahead, but we need to be very careful about the sacrifices that could be made if we rethink too radically what For the People contains.”
Another option would be to expand the reach of the voting rights law that Manchin says he does support, the John Lewis Act, which would restore federal oversight of state voting laws to protect minority groups that might be targeted.
Other Democrats were looking for any way forward.
“The stakes are really high right now; this country is having a conversation with itself about whether we want to be a democracy,” Murphy said.
“Do we have to pass every single provision in the For the People Act to save democracy?” he added. “No, but we’re getting closer to a scenario in which we do none of it, and that is potentially cataclysmic.”
Presidential advisers warned that there was little more Biden could do to expand voting freedoms outside of an executive order he issued in March. Other executive orders on hot-button issues like gun control have been tried with little effect.
White House officials also pointed out that there were areas of cooperation to be found: The Senate is poised to confirm the first round of federal judges nominated by Biden this week, as well as pass a huge piece of industrial policy legislation meant to curb the competitive threat from China.
In a lengthy statement that outlined several of Biden’s policy successes in the first months of his administration, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said the president “and his team are continuing to put their all into his legislative agenda every single day.”
But liberal Democrats and voting rights groups on Monday flashed frustration, not just with Manchin but with the White House, which they see as insufficiently engaged in an issue that they believe has democracy in the balance. The nightmare scenario liberals are putting forward is that Republicans seize control of Congress and expand their control over state governments next year, in part because of restrictive voting laws. Then they use their new power to nullify the results of close state contests in 2024 to deliver the White House back to the GOP.
Last week, Biden directed Vice President Kamala Harris to pursue voting rights protections. She promptly headed to Central America to deal with her other big issue, the surge of migrants at the southwestern border.
“He said he’d use every tool at his disposal and he would ‘fight like heck,’” Stephen Spaulding, the senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at the voting rights group Common Cause, said about Biden’s recent remarks about advancing the For the People Act through the Senate. “Now is the time.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.