Biden was forged in the Senate. Now he's burning political capital to change it.
Updated: 01/13/2022 12:52 PM EST
President Joe Biden is yet again sticking his neck out on Capitol Hill to save his agenda with slim prospects for success.
Just as he tried to resolve myriad disputes on his domestic spending plans late last year, Biden is wading directly into a protracted battle within his own party over weakening the Senate filibuster. After edging from defender to critic of the chamber's 60-vote requirement to pass most bills — which has been a roadblock to many of his top priorities — Biden will visit Senate Democrats on Thursday to emphatically argue for changing the Senate rules to pass a party-line election reform bill.
But it appears impossible the president can move two of his party's most ardent filibuster defenders, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) or Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), off their defense of the Senate’s supermajority requirement.
In a remarkably timed speech just minutes before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill, Sinema again reiterated her opposition to a Democrats-only rules change to gut the legislative filibuster.
"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," Sinema said. "Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy."
And Biden's appearance before the caucus comes less than a month after Manchin rejected his entreaties on his $1.7 trillion climate and social spending bill, sending Democrats’ legislative agenda into a nosedive. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer responded to that setback by reorienting their agenda toward federal election standards and beefing up the Voting Rights Act — only to see Manchin get in the way again, along with Sinema. Both support their party's bills but oppose unilaterally weakening the filibuster to achieve them. When asked Wednesday what Biden could say to change his mind, Manchin only shrugged.
Democrats say it's better for Biden to try and fail with his latest long-shot effort than not try at all. After all, the president, himself a 36-year veteran of the Senate, campaigned as a skilled navigator of the Hill who could leverage relationships into legislative progress.
“I don’t know what more he could do,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the party whip. “He can’t use violence or coercion. He’s got to try and persuade them.”
Biden never served in Congress with Sinema or Manchin, though both were in office when he was vice president. His aides are confident in his ability to persuade the holdouts: White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden “does not feel powerless," and that both he and Vice President Kamala Harris will be “working the phones.”
She also pushed back when asked Wednesday what a second legislative failure in roughly two months would do to Biden’s clout and standing with voters.
“The majority of the American public elected the president to do hard things and to fight for hard things,” Psaki said.
But as Durbin put it, Manchin and Sinema “were elected before him. And have authority in their own office.”
There’s a real risk that Thursday will end with Biden and his party replaying rocky visits he made to Capitol Hill last year, when he twice left House Democratic caucus meetings without ironclad agreements to advance his infrastructure plan and the accompanying social spending bill.
The infrastructure legislation eventually passed the House and became law, but the bigger bill that Biden christened Build Back Better is marooned indefinitely.
Biden and most Democrats are casting the elections push in far more dire terms than those two spending bills. Asked if there’s a risk to Biden falling flat, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) responded: “The risk is that we lose our democracy as we know it."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) took a pragmatic view of Biden's ability to change the outcome: "The president wants to do everything he possibly can to win this issue. ... At the end of the day, he can honestly say he tried everything he possibly could.”
Though Democrats said they would not blame Biden should their latest push fall short, another failure would come at an inopportune time for him. Biden faces still-sagging approval ratings, persistent inflation and another brutal Covid wave. The midterms are now 10 months away, and Democrats control just 50 Senate seats and a threadbare margin in the House.
As the party confronts a potential loss of both chambers this fall, voting rights activists have pushed Biden and Schumer to more forcefully press for weakening the filibuster to pass anti-gerrymandering and campaign finance reform legislation. Each man has thrown themselves wholeheartedly in the fight.
The White House has increasingly put the onus on the Senate in an attempt to show activists and Democratic voters that Biden is using the bully pulpit.
“On Jan. 6, it was the brave men and women of the Metropolitan Police, Capitol Police and others that saved the democracy,” Cedric Richmond, the former House Democrat who now directs the White House office of public engagement, said in an interview. “And now it's time for our elected senators to do the same.”
Biden has invoked the civil rights era in his push to pass a bill that would aim to rein in state-level laws that restrict ballot access. In Georgia this week, he asked senators: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” He also alluded to quiet talks with filibuster holdouts and declared: “I'm tired of being quiet.”
That speech was a direct challenge to 50 Democrats. But it didn’t move the needle inside the Capitol. Manchin called it a “good speech” but said he had nothing new to offer on filibuster reform. Sinema reiterated through a spokesperson her openness to a debate on the filibuster, as well as her support for the 60-vote threshold.
“I don’t know what’s going to move them. So far nothing has,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Biden “cares enough that he’s going to come and talk with them and make the strongest pitch he can. Then it’s up to them.”
Biden’s visit is only one piece of an intricate Democratic operation to move Manchin and Sinema. Democratic senators met with Sinema at length on Tuesday night, then a separate band of them huddled with Manchin on Wednesday. Those are just the latest in a series of private huddles focused on moving the pair toward support for rules changes.
There’s also been a number of one-on-one conversations. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he spoke to Manchin twice in the past few days about the issue that's come to consume the Senate.
“There’s a lot of engagement. And the president engaging is obviously part of that,” Casey said.
Biden’s Thursday meeting won’t be the final word. Schumer is expected in the next few days to bring up a House-passed package that includes both a Voting Rights Act bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and a sweeping elections reform plan to the Senate floor for debate. And he will do so through procedural mechanisms that will allow him to evade an initial GOP filibuster.
But Schumer will eventually run up against a filibuster to end debate on that measure. Senate Democrats will then vote on whether to weaken the filibuster, either by installing a talking filibuster or creating a carveout for elections legislation.
“You’re going to see a vote on this issue, on the rules change very soon,” Warnock said. “This is a historical moment, it’s a moral moment, and everybody needs to be on record in terms of where they stand.”