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Biden's push to save voting rights agenda appears doomed as key US senator opposes changes

Biden argues that the national voting rights bills are vital to preserving US democracy.

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

US PRESIDENT JOE Biden’s push to get major voting rights laws through Congress appeared on the brink of defeat after a last-hour bid to get unity in his own Democratic party failed.

Biden was headed up to Congress for a rare visit to try and wrangle Democrats into carrying out a tricky legislative maneuver that would change a Senate rule and let them get two bills on protecting elections passed into law, despite Republican opposition.

But before the president even arrived for his lunch with legislators, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema gave a speech explaining that while she backed the voting rights bills, she would not agree to changing the rule, known as the filibuster.

Sinema said that simply bypassing the filibuster, which requires a supermajority and therefore some Republican support for a Democrat bill, would deepen the country’s biggest problem – “the disease of division”.

“To protect our democracy…, it cannot be achieved by one party alone,” she said.

Biden was traveling up to Capitol Hill in hopes of persuading Sinema and another opponent to changing the filibuster, Senator Joe Manchin.

Biden argues that the national voting rights bills are vital to preserving US democracy against Republican attempts to exclude Black and other predominantly Democratic voters through a spate of recently enacted laws at the local level.

Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 40% range and Republicans are in a good position to take control of Congress from the Democrats in the November midterm elections, meaning time is running out for him to get major legislation passed.

“Nothing less than our democracy is at stake,” Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives and another key Biden ally, said.

Democratic hold outs

Ironically, in an era of implacable Republican-Democratic divide, the Republicans aren’t Biden’s biggest problem.

His Democrats control the Senate by just one vote and that’s not enough under currently accepted rules to pass most laws, which instead require a supermajority including some opposition participation.

That filibuster rule has allowed Republicans to gum up the Democrats’ work in the Senate repeatedly over Biden’s first year in office.

This time, though, Biden is asking his party to create an exception to the filibuster, allowing them to change the rule temporarily and vote for the election bills on a simple majority basis – effectively cutting out the Republicans.

The problem is that the legislative maneuver to change the filibuster rule would require unanimous Democratic approval, meaning that Sinema or Manchin alone can sink the whole project.

A similar scenario played out a month ago when Biden’s major climate and social spending project, the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill, sank because Manchin refused to give his support.

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Americans will applaud Biden at least for trying.

“The majority of the American public elected the president to do hard things and to fight for hard things, including fighting for issues that may feel like an uphill battle,” she said yesterday.

However, with his prestige on the line, Biden is in an uncomfortable spot.

African-Americans are at the heart of the Democratic coalition and some influential leaders have already criticized Biden for doing too little, too late on election laws — an issue steeped in a history of racism and attempts to restrict Black votes.

On the other side, Republicans are using Biden’s big push to argue that he has abandoned his centrist roots and turned far-left.

A speech Biden delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday to portray the voting rights laws as a vital tool for preserving democratic rights was “divisive” and “pure demagoguery,” senior Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said yesterday.

© AFP 2022

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