WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden appeared to admit defeat on Thursday (Jan 13) in his bid to get major voting rights laws passed in Congress after he failed to persuade his own Democratic party to give full backing.
In another blow to his presidency, the Supreme Court also ruled against his COVID-19 test-or-vaccine mandate on large businesses, a key component in the administration’s bid to control the spread of the Omicron variant.
Leaving a lunch with Democratic senators, Biden seemed to accept there was little chance of seeing the two voting protections laws through.
“I hope we can get this done but I’m not sure,” 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.”
Biden was in Congress to try and wrangle Democrats into carrying out a tricky legislative manoeuvre that would change a Senate rule and let them get the Bills passed, despite total 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 Democratic Bill, would deepen the country’s biggest problem – “the disease of division”.
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 percent 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 most immediate 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.
And Sinema and another Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, say the filibuster is too established a procedure to be broken unilaterally by one party.
Biden is asking for an exception, 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 changing 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 US$1.7 trillion Build Back Better Bill, sank because Manchin refused to give his support.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate and a key Biden ally, said the fight for the voting Bills was not over.
“The president made a powerful and strong and impassioned presentation for us to get things done, and we are going to do everything we can to pass these two Bills,” he said.
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 criticised 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.
There was more bad news for the Biden administration on Thursday when the Supreme Court struck down a mandate on businesses to impose COVID-19 vaccine or testing requirements on their staff. Biden had portrayed the rule as a key way to boost the country’s flagging vaccination rates.
However, the top court did allow the administration’s vaccine requirement for health care workers at federal facilities to go ahead.