President Joe Biden expressed frustration with efforts to protect voting rights on Thursday, given overwhelming Republican opposition in the Senate and lack of support among Democrats for changing rules in order to pass legislation expanding voting access with a simple majority of votes.
“I hope we can get this done. The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know that we can get this done,” Biden said after a private caucus meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill. “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. We missed this time.”
Biden pledged to keep fighting for election reform and voting rights legislation, warning that failure could result in “subversion” by Republicans in future presidential elections, succeeding where former President Donald Trump and his allies failed in 2021.
“If we miss this time and the state legislative bodies continue to change the law not as to who can vote but who gets to count the vote, count the vote, count the vote — it’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote,” Biden said.
Biden took more than a dozen questions from Democratic senators in Thursday’s caucus meeting, including one from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a supporter of the filibuster rule that is preventing Democrats from moving forward on voting rights. Manchin asked Biden about the history of Senate rules; Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, noted that rules changed many times.
“President Biden really did give us some of the history of Senator Biden and talked through how the Senate worked,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said afterward, noting that the institution no longer operated as it once did.
At one point in the meeting, Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) stood up and gave an impassioned speech that received a standing ovation from his colleagues. The senator said his message focused on the wave of state-level restrictions, including in Georgia, that are designed to “selectively disenfranchise voters.”
But a presidential visit and emotional appeals didn’t sway the party’s two holdouts, who have long maintained their position against eliminating the filibuster.
“Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country,” Manchin reiterated in a statement issued after the meeting.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), meanwhile, made a rare speech on the Senate floor on Thursday before Biden’s visit making it clear she would not support changing the chamber’s filibuster rules in order to pass voting rights legislation. Approximately 10 Republicans sat in the chamber and listened intently as she spoke.
“Demands to eliminate [the 60-vote filibuster] threshold from whichever party holds the fleeting majority amount to a group of people separated on two sides of a canyon shouting that solution to their colleagues,” Sinema said. “And that makes the rift wider and deeper.”
Republicans, who are almost universally opposed to any legislation to strengthen voting rights, showered praise on Sinema afterward. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said she “saved the Senate” and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) gave her kudos for bucking her party.
“Whether you agree with her or not, the fact that she is willing to stand her ground despite extraordinary pressure being placed against her is a strong indication of the person she is,” Romney said.
Democrats are expected to begin floor debate on voting rights legislation in the coming days, emphasizing that it was important to at least hold a discussion on the issue as Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches.
It’s not clear yet, however, whether they will hold a vote on changing Senate rules ― a vote that will fail given the lack of Democratic support. All 50 Democrats would need to support such a move in order to get the bill passed.