WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden has put a new emphasis on voting rights legislation, declaring that “there’s nothing domestically more important.”
Biden made that comment to reporters Wednesday as the Senate signaled it would not be able to finish work on the president’s signature domestic policy bill until next year.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday that Democrats would continue to work on Biden’s spending priorities in the Build Back Better plan, but that conversations would also continue on voting rights.
“There is a universal view in our caucus that we need to pass legislation to protect our democracy,” Schumer said.
At least 19 states this year enacted laws making it harder for Americans to vote, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
The White House – and particularly Vice President Kamala Harris – has been under increasing pressure to do more to pass federal protections through Congress.
In an interview with SiriusXM this week, Harris called protecting the right to vote “one of the most critical battles before us right now.”
But Democratic Sens. Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have opposed changing Senate rules to get around a GOP filibuster of the voting rights legislation that has passed the House.
That legislation would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013, and would aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.
A different voting rights bill written with the involvement of Sinema and Manchin also doesn’t have enough Republican support to thwart a filibuster.
Stalled in Senate:Republicans block John Lewis Voting Rights Act in Senate vote
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday as he left Schumer’s office that talks continued about possible rules changes. One possibility is adopting a one-time change in the filibuster to allow a simple majority to pass the legislation. Senators did that this month to approve an increase in the country’s debt limit over GOP objections.
“I think we’re making progress,” Tester said. “The goal is to get it done as quick as we can.”
Democrats also still face obstacles to passing the Build Back Better package that includes expanding the social safety net and addressing climate change. They are unlikely to get it through the Senate before the end of the year.
“The calendar is not our friend,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the biggest advocate in the Senate for the package, said Wednesday he wants Build Back Better passed as quickly as possible.
“But if we can’t deal with it right now,” Sanders said, “it’s far more important that we deal with the voting rights issue.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Thursday accused the “radical left” of claiming the sky is falling if states scrap voting procedures adopted during the pandemic.
“It isn’t about ‘voting rights,’” McConnell said, “it’s a naked power grab.”
Maureen Groppe has covered Washington for nearly three decades and is now a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @mgroppe.