The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden speaks with senators on voting rights as Democrats move to prioritize legislation on the issue

President Biden speaks on the phone to Ukraine’s president in December. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden spoke privately with Democratic senators about voting rights on Thursday and later called for quick progress, as the White House plots a path forward on a difficult issue in the face of immense pressure from within the party to produce legislative results.

The conversation, which participants said did not produce any breakthroughs, came a day after Biden said there is “nothing domestically more important than voting rights.” The path to passing a bill to protect the right to vote faces significant obstacles in an evenly divided Senate.

Biden will be the keynote speaker at South Carolina State University’s fall commencement Friday. He said this week that he plans to raise the issue in his remarks.

The group of senators, including both liberals and moderates, spoke with Biden on a video call. Five of the participantsSens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) — confirmed the call and said the president’s message was clear: Get it done, and quickly.

But only one of the two key Democratic senators who will need to be persuaded for there to be any movement on voting rights, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), was on the call, according to the other participants. The other senator, Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), was not, participants said. Biden in a later statement described the conversation as “productive.”

And Biden, the senators said, did not set out a firm timeline for action, and they did not echo demands from some Democrats and advocacy groups that the bills must pass before senators depart Washington for the holidays.

Tester said that “it would be great to get a commitment before people leave town . . . to move forward so we can get these bills,” while Warnock said he would “like to see us having a path to getting this done” before the recess begins, including setting out any necessary rule changes to skirt a GOP filibuster.

Civil rights leaders and Democratic activists have raised growing concerns with Republican-led efforts in some states to tighten voting laws, and they say they are losing patience with the lack of movement in Washington. Continued false claims by former president Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen have also angered Democrats.

The issue has grabbed the attention of a large group of powerful Democrats in Washington. Vice President Harris, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) also were on Thursday’s call, according to a senior Democratic Senate aide.

“The senators provided an update on their progress. And the president and the vice president reaffirmed the importance of acting to ensure that every American can vote and have that vote be counted,” said White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Asked by The Washington Post on Wednesday after a speech in Kentucky whether congressional Democrats should put off the spending plan to 2022 and move on to voting rights, Biden said, “If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it. If we can’t, we’ve got to keep going. There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights.”

Biden’s conversation with the senators focused on voting rights specifically, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the talks. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

Momentum has been building for voting rights action in the Senate at the same time it has become clear that Senate Democrats will not be able to pass the social spending bill containing many of Biden’s priorities before the end of the year.

Biden released a statement Thursday on the status of the negotiations on the Build Back Better bill, acknowledging a slog remains head. “At the same time, we must also press forward on voting rights legislation,” Biden said.

Pressed at the daily White House press briefing on Biden’s comment in Kentucky, Jean-Pierre did not clarify whether he was suggesting that the spending plan should now take a legislative back seat to voting rights.

In his news conference Thursday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, “I noticed the emphasis on the other side seems to have changed from reckless tax and spending spree to the voting issue again.”

While Jean-Pierre also called out Republicans for opposing Democratic efforts, the president and his party have enough of an advantage on Capitol Hill to do it on their own — but with no margin for error.

Biden’s challenge lies primarily in Manchin and Sinema, who have voiced skepticism or opposition to changing Senate procedures in a way that would be needed to push voting rights priorities across the finish line.

With Republicans unified against Democrats’ plans, the only way to pass legislation is to alter Senate rules requiring a 60-vote threshold. That would mean all 50 Democrats uniting in favor of both a rule change and underlying legislation.

While Manchin and Sinema appear intractable on the Senate’s 60-vote margin, other Democrats have been increasingly willing to entertain changes. The latest Democrat to back an exception for voting right legislation is Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), who had not endorsed softening the filibuster margin until Thursday night. Due to “systematic undermining of our elections and our democracy,” she said in a floor speech, voting bills ought to be passed on a simple majority vote.

“I believe the time has come to change the Senate rules to allow a straight up-or-down majority vote on this fundamental issue of democracy,” said Hassan, who is facing reelection next year in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate races. “Our democracy is too important to allow a minority of this body to let it slip away.” 

Hassan was among 33 members of the Democratic caucus who signed a 2017 letter defending the filibuster under then-president Donald Trump when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. More than half of those Democrats have now changed their views.

The Biden administration on Thursday stressed the executive actions Biden has taken to combat GOP attempts to chip away at voting rights. But many activists say more needs to be done.

Multiple senators said they left their conversations with the impression that Biden would become more personally engaged in the battle to pass the voting rights bills in the coming days and weeks.

“I expect him to stay more vocal, more engaged until we get it done,” Padilla said.

“I was very encouraged by the conversation we had today. I feel like we’re on a path to getting it done,” Warnock said.

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.