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Biden tries to save voting rights bill in evening talks

President Joe Biden gestures as he talks with the media following Senate Democratic lunch to discuss the party's push to enact voting rights legislation and possible changes to Senate rules, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Thursday. - Reuters
President Joe Biden gestures as he talks with the media following Senate Democratic lunch to discuss the party's push to enact voting rights legislation and possible changes to Senate rules, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Thursday. - Reuters

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden negotiated into the evening on Thursday with two holdout senators from his own party to try and save his beleaguered voting rights bill on a day that also saw him get a stinging setback on Covid-fighting strategy.


The two national voting rights bills, which Biden argues are needed to save US democracy from Republican tampering with local laws, appeared close to dead due to insufficient support in his own party.


However, the two principle holdout senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, made a surprise visit to the White House late in the day.


Their meeting, which lasted about one hour and 20 minutes, was "a candid and respectful exchange of views about voting rights," a White House official said.


Earlier, Biden had gone in the other direction, up to Capitol Hill, to try and persuade the party to unite. He came out sounding close to defeat.


"I hope we can get this done, but I'm not sure," he conceded.


Biden was trying to 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, Sinema declared that while she backed the voting rights bills themselves, 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."


Later, Manchin also made clear he opposed breaking the filibuster, even if he supported the actual bills. Unless they both change their minds, the measures look set to die.


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 per cent 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.


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.


Sinema and Manchin argue that the filibuster is too established a procedure to be broken unilaterally by one party.


Biden had asked for an exception, allowing the Democrats to change the rule temporarily and vote for the election bills on a simple majority basis -- effectively cutting out the Republicans.


But just changing the rule would require unanimous Democratic approval, effectively giving Sinema and Manchin veto power. A similar scenario played out a month ago when Biden's major climate and social spending project, the $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.


But with his prestige on the line, Biden is in an uncomfortable spot. - AFP


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