Biden ties midterm election legitimacy to doomed voting rights bill

Says there may be a way to reach consensus on Electoral Count Act

Beneath a portrait of President George Washington, President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Beneath a portrait of President George Washington, President Joe Biden answers questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted January 19, 2022 at 6:57pm, Updated at 10:59pm

Hours before Senate Democrats were unable to change their rules to force a vote on top-priority voting rights legislation, President Joe Biden expressed hope that voters would still overcome hurdles to turn out in this year’s midterm elections.

“I think no matter how hard they make it for minorities to vote, I think you are going to see them willing to stand in line and defy the attempt to keep them from being able to vote,” Biden said Wednesday. “But it’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that, it’s going to be difficult.”

Senators voted, 49-51, against limiting debate on the voting rights legislation at the traditional 60-vote threshold Wednesday evening, with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., voting with all Republicans against cloture for procedural reasons.

After some further debate, Schumer made a point of order that the only debatable question on the Senate floor be on adopting the voting rights measure from the House. In so doing, the majority leader was attempting to deploy seldom-used Senate Rule 19, which limits senators to two speeches on any one question on a single legislative day.

President Pro Tempore Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who was presiding, ruled against the point of order. The Senate then voted, 52-48, to sustain the ruling of the chair, defeating the attempted rule change. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined all Republicans in maintaining the current rules.

Biden said after the vote that he was disappointed, “but I am not deterred.”

“As dangerous new Republican laws plainly designed to suppress and subvert voting rights proliferate in states across the country, we will explore every measure and use every tool at our disposal to stand up for democracy,” Biden said in a statement.

In debate before the votes, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, noted that state laws in Georgia and Texas that Democrats were trying to undo were passed by simple majorities.

“I guess bipartisanship is an important issue in Washington, but in Atlanta and Austin, not so much,” said King, who opposed efforts to undo the filibuster in the past. “Policy can change. If they don’t like the policy we have, they can kick us out and vote others in. If they change the structure of the rights of people to vote, it’s not self-correcting. The system itself is being compromised.”

Earlier, Biden held  a rare formal news conference and was asked multiple times whether he thought upcoming elections would be viewed as legitimate without the voting rights bills reaching his desk.

“Well, it all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election,” Biden said.

Later in the news conference, he said, in reference to the midterms, that “the increase in prospect of it being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these reforms passed.”

Changes possible on elector counts

Biden did suggest that there could be bipartisan agreement “on the electoral reform side of this,” an apparent reference to an effort to overhaul the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

Senators in both caucuses have been working on legislation that would clarify the functions of both the vice president and members of Congress during the counting of Electoral College ballots and in matters related to election certification. The efforts are designed to avoid having Congress throw out lawful electoral votes, which rioters supporting President Donald Trump were trying to get lawmakers to do when they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Manchin, who spoke on the Senate floor during Biden’s nearly two-hour news conference, restated his opposition to the Democratic Caucus taking steps to change filibuster rules with a simple majority. Manchin also expressed some optimism, however, about addressing the electoral count piece of the puzzle.

“We can reform the Electoral Count Act, which is what caused the insurrection. We agree on that. We can fix that. We’ll never have to witness another Jan. 6. It was such an absolutely deplorable stain on this great country of ours. And we can protect local election officials from harassment and intimidation by making them federal crimes,” Manchin said.

Even as Schumer and 47 members of his caucus were preparing, with Biden’s support, to go it alone with an effort to force a vote to change Senate precedent and create a path to pass the voting rights measure with a simple majority, Biden was making a broader case for building consensus.

Midterms await

As for the politics, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm was pleased that Schumer decided to go ahead with the vote because it believes that will cause difficulty for battleground Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a photo of fruit basket delivery to Schumer’s office as a thank you.

Senate Republicans, as well as Democratic holdouts Manchin and Sinema, have continued to argue that the way to come together is to maintain the Senate rules.

“Right now, we’re debating a fundamental change in the Senate rules that will forever alter the way this body functions. For the last year, my Democratic colleagues have taken to the Senate floor, cable news airwaves, pages of newspapers across the country and to argue that repealing the filibuster is actually restoring the Senate to the vision of the Founding Fathers intended for this deliberate body,” Manchin said. “My friends, that is simply not true.”

Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said the Senate was supposed to be “the place where things simmered down” and the goal was consensus.

“And what that yields in the end is stability and predictability with respect to policy and not this constant shifting back and forth as power changes hands here in Washington, D.C. The Senate is serving in that role,” Thune said.

With the vote going in the record books Wednesday night, the debate over the legislative filibuster and the voting rights overhaul will shift to the 2022 midterm campaign trail. Support for changing the filibuster rules has already become a mainstay of Democrats’ fundraising and messaging.

Neither Manchin nor Sinema is on the ballot this year, but some activists — and even party insiders — are mulling efforts to mount primary challenges to either, or both, in 2024.

Democrats running for the Senate this year, including Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb and former Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer, have made changing the filibuster a high-profile messaging point. Finkenauer, who is challenging longtime Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, called Sinema a “sellout” for her position on the filibuster.

Another Pennsylvania Democratic Senate contender, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has publicly lambasted Manchin over the filibuster.

“If we had one more Democratic vote in the Senate, we would actually be able to finally deliver massively popular policies to the American people,” Fetterman said in a campaign statement last fall. “Pennsylvania is Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat. I would be that vote.”

Base wants rule changed

The Democratic base clearly has the appetite for both the rollback of the filibuster for legislation and for the voting rights and elections overhaul, but it’s not clear whether Democratic voters will reward the party in the midterms for trying, and failing.

Democratic political consultants and advocates for the blocked efforts said the stakes were too high to not at least make an attempt.

“In terms of this vote this week, it’s as simple as we made a promise and we’ve got to try,” Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli said.

Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, which has been lobbying and mobilizing for the rules change and for voting rights legislation, said the fight will carry on.

“The exact tactics and strategy are in flux, but the one thing we know is: This isn’t over,” she said. “The crisis doesn’t end just because this wasn’t successful.”

Activists have stressed the urgency for the voting rights legislation to take effect before this year’s midterms. “Whether we’re able to impact the upcoming election or not, the reforms are needed,” Gilbert added.