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Major Senate election bills are scrapped to remind Democrats of limits on power

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Major Senate election bills are scrapped to remind Democrats of limits on power

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WASHINGTON — For Democrats, the week began with plans for an epic showdown featuring the fight to pass legislation and a battle over Senate rules.

Instead, the week ended with a fizzle – no votes and a promise to come back next week to try again. But even the delay, forced by a Senate Democrat who tested positive for Covid-19 and had to isolate himself, may still be in vain since no one has managed to convince the two recalcitrants to change their minds.

Democrats, after weeks of trying to blame Republicans for the heist, instead ended up fighting among themselves over whether they wanted to change Senate rules to pass the bills on a party vote.

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders have described the struggle as a choice between saving democracy and risking a slide into autocracy.

But that wasn’t enough to win them the votes they needed. Two centrist Democrats said “no” to Biden. That means the Senate will miss a self-imposed MLK Day deadline to vote on the Free Suffrage Act and the John Lewis Advancing Voting Rights Act, both of which have unanimous Democratic support but no hope of reaching the 60 needed to defeat a buccaneer.

“Make no mistake about it, the United States Senate will, for the first time in this Congress, debate voting rights legislation beginning on Tuesday,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday evening before to adjourn the room for the long weekend.

“And if Senate Republicans choose filibuster over protecting the sacred right to vote, as we expect, the Senate will consider and vote on changing Senate rules,” he said.

It was a week that reminded Democrats how fragile their power is in Washington, despite the scrutiny of the White House and Congress. Tiny majorities, even when unified, aren’t enough to push through some of Biden’s campaign promises while Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, strongly support the maintaining the Senate’s 60-vote rule to pass most laws.

The Senate was prepared to at least debate the issue using a workaround triggered by the House passing both bills. But an unexpected positive Covid test for Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, torpedoed those Senate hopes 50-50.

A year of lobbying campaigns and pressure from Democratic leaders, congressional colleagues, progressive advocates and the civil rights community has fallen flat with Manchin and Sinema, who say they support the ballot bills but do not want to change the rules to make them pass.

The issue is a high priority for Democratic constituencies, and Schumer seems intent on registering every senator who is voting, even if it ends in an embarrassing defeat for the party. A battle that party leaders hoped would galvanize their base and exert political pressure on Republicans has instead turned into a bitter infighting between Democrats.

A fiery speech by Biden on Tuesday in Atlanta failed to change Manchin and Sinema’s minds, even as the president, a 36-year veteran of the Senate himself, described it as a struggle to save the American democracy from restrictive election laws in Republic-led states and former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn elections.

Biden said the moment called for a rule change, arguing that every senator must decide whether to side with civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. or segregationist George Wallace.

Sinema disagreed. Before arriving on Capitol Hill on Thursday to make her case to Senate Democrats, she walked into the Senate and stabbed the effort. She said she continues to support the 60-vote threshold, arguing that without it the United States would see “savage shifts in federal politics” and governance “pushed from the middle to the extremes.”

After Biden’s visit, Manchin reaffirmed his position: “I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”

Biden saw the writing on the wall, acknowledging the effort may fail. But he noted that earlier civil rights measures had also failed before they could be passed and the bills could be revived later.

“Hopefully we can achieve that,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill. “But I’m not sure.”

He added: “If we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time.”

Other Democrats could not hide their disappointment.

“It’s disheartening,” Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., said Friday on MSNBC, calling Manchin and Sinema’s remarks a “setback.”

He said he “hopes against hope” that the bills can still pass the Senate.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, appeared on CNN on Friday and slammed Sinema, saying Arizonans were “very upset” with her for “blocking voting rights legislation.” He said she stuck to the “old tenets” of Senate tradition and called her views “inconsistent” with voters.

He also left the door open to challenge her in a 2024 Democratic primary, but said he would not decide until after the midterm elections.

“I never say no in the future,” Gallego said, adding that for now he would continue to hold public meetings, “something she should try to do from time to time.”

Major Senate election bills are scrapped to remind Democrats of limits on power

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