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Senate voting rights bill vote doesn’t dominate Biden’s day

White House also has infrastructure, crime on its messaging mind

Steve Ricchetti, counselor to President Joe Biden, departs from a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators to negotiate an infrastructure package in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Steve Ricchetti, counselor to President Joe Biden, departs from a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators to negotiate an infrastructure package in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As Senate Democrats focused Tuesday on sweeping legislation to overhaul election and campaign finance law, President Joe Biden’s only scheduled public appearance was at a meeting about severe weather preparations and response.

At the end of his remarks to reporters at that event, Biden was asked, “Mr. President, on voting rights, is this the end? Is it over?” at which point the president said, “Thank you” but did not address that question.

The president did endorse the bill on Twitter, calling on the Senate to send legislation to his desk.

“We can’t sit idly by while democracy is in peril — here, in America. We need to protect the sacred right to vote and ensure ‘We the People’ choose our leaders, the very foundation on which our democracy rests,” Biden said. “We urgently need the For The People Act.”

A White House statement of administration policy, released Tuesday afternoon just a few hours before Senate Republicans blocked the measure in a procedural vote, echoed that sentiment.

But the scene was perhaps unintentionally emblematic of the challenge facing Democrats at the Capitol. While Senate Democrats argue the legislation is vital to democracy itself, this week the White House has declined to give it a singular focus.

With the arrival of summer, that includes the federal government’s preparedness for hurricane season.

“We’re already experiencing extreme heat in the West, several large wildland fires, and we’ve had three named Atlantic storms, including Tropical Storm Claudette, which led to the tragic loss of life in Alabama this past weekend,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

“It was important to the president to meet with the FEMA administrator and members of the Emergency Preparedness Team, including the homeland security adviser, to discuss the federal government’s ongoing preparedness and response efforts, as well as how FEMA supports communities in need.”

Members of Biden’s senior staff, meanwhile, were attending high-profile meetings in the Senate with a bipartisan group of senators to negotiate an infrastructure package that can win broad approval.

On Wednesday, the president is scheduled to speak about his administration’s strategy for preventing crime and meet with Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and several U.S. mayors at the White House on that issue.

The Senate, too, is juggling priorities. Negotiators working on a bill to overhaul police accountability policies were continuing their efforts and much of the discussion on Capitol Hill revolved around a two-track process for advancing Biden’s infrastructure and other government investment and tax policy priorities.

“Discussions about infrastructure are moving along forward nicely on two tracks: One is bipartisan, and the second deals with components of the jobs, American Jobs and Families Plan, which we’ll consider even if it lacks bipartisan support. You can’t do one track without the other,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer are scheduled to meet Wednesday evening with acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young and Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, along with White House advisers Brian Deese, Louisa Terrell and Steve Ricchetti on infrastructure and the budget resolution, a source familiar said.

Not just ‘another issue’

Many Democrats inside the Capitol, as well as activists, view the election law legislation as an essential pillar, and one for which it is worth having a fight over the legislative filibuster that Biden himself has not yet been as willing to engage in.

“We make a mistake if we think that this is just another issue. Voting rights are preservative of all other rights. When we’re talking voting rights, we’re talking about that what is foundational, that what is formative,” Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., told reporters as one of Schumer’s headline guests at the Ohio Clock stakeout after Tuesday’s Democratic caucus lunch.

“All of the other issues that we debate happen within the framework of certain Democratic assumptions, and those assumptions are being undermined right now.”

From left, Sens. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speak to reporters about the For the People Act in the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Schumer was announcing a bit of a coup: that he had secured the support of West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, at least for the first procedural vote on taking up the elections legislation, by guaranteeing a Manchin substitute amendment would be first in line for votes if senators actually got to debate the bill — a motion the Republicans were united against on Tuesday.

Vice President Kamala Harris did preside over Tuesday’s vote, a demonstration that the bill is a priority for the White House.

But with the measure effectively stalled, the White House SAP provided an inadvertently incongruous message.

“As the bill moves forward, the Administration will continue to work with Congress to ensure that it achieves lasting reform consistent with Congress’ broad constitutional authority to strengthen our democracy,” the SAP stated.

And, as if to hammer home the point that there was more on the White House agenda, the Office of Management and Budget released three other SAPs on Tuesday.

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023