Biden spoke of Byrd — with whom he served in the Senate — in some detail during his meeting with the 50-member Democratic bloc, stressing that the late West Virginia believed Senate rules were not fixed and needed to evolve. Later in the debate, Senator Jeff Merkley (a Raw Democrat) recounted that Byrd had maneuvered several times to change Senate rules on a smaller scale by a simple majority—the same move that Merkley and other progressives had sold nearly all members of their party to make.
Joe asked a question about changing the Senate’s rules. and atmosphere [Biden] Talk about his experience. He’s been here 36 years. It has changed a lot. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) said after the visit, the point he made is that Senate rules are not sacrosanct. “President Biden spoke as a senator who saw the rules change a lot, and he spoke about the fact that the rules change because of changing times.”
But Thursday was a sore day for Senate rule reformers. The commander-in-chief who came to the Senate for a final push to change the rules could not shake the resistance of Manchin and fellow centrist Senator Kirstin Senema (D-Arizona Democrat). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday night that the chamber will postpone a previously scheduled recess and return on Tuesday to begin debating election and voting law. He also reiterated his pledge that the Senate would vote on rule changes if Republicans block the move to the final section, as expected of them.
Despite Biden’s visit and the ground showdown next week, Manchin and Cinema are still digging into the matter.
After the bloc meeting, Manchin announced in a new statement, “I will not vote to repeal or weaken the disruption.” He cited Byrd’s testimony to the 2010 Senate Rules Committee, in which Byrd emphasized the need to protect stall but also denounced its excessive use. His stiff arm was a major blow to Biden and Schumer’s efforts to change the rules along party lines.
Even as Democrats advanced their caucus with Biden on changing Senate rules to reform federal elections, in response to GOP-backed state laws designed to restrict access to the ballot, a large portion of them were unaware that they had already lost. Just minutes before the group’s meeting with Biden, Cinema closed the door to weaken the disruption during a speech on the Senate floor that Biden once called home.
“People were surprised when we went there. Because no one knew she was on the floor talking” in defense of stalling, said a Democratic senator who missed Senema’s remarks. “There were probably 20 people who didn’t even know she said anything.”
Biden had prepared notes for the meeting, but chose instead to speak without hesitation, recalling that he had made the late Senator Strom Thurmond (RS.C) support the Voting Rights Act while they were in Congress and arguing that a majority of Republicans today would not support this landmark bill. Biden told senators he doesn’t remember a time in US history when a party was as infatuated with one person as the Republican Party of former President Donald Trump.
Unlike Manchin, Sinema did not ask Biden a question during his 90-minute visit with the caucus. There probably wasn’t much to say: Sinema made it clear during her talk that while she supports voting and election reform projects, she “would not support separate measures that exacerbate the underlying disease of division afflicting our country.”
Many Democrats refused to comment on the run-up to Biden’s take on Cinema, which has particularly angered some who thought she should at least hear the president. “The timing is interesting,” noted Senator John Tester (Mont Democrat).
During his meeting with Democrats, Biden also sought to clarify Wednesday’s attempt to speak with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after a Kentucky Republican criticized the president for a speech in Atlanta that invoked the civil rights movement in lobbying for a voting reform bill.
Biden told senators he didn’t think McConnell could be compared to segregationists in the civil rights era and asked Republicans which team they wanted to be on when it came to voting rights.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (DNY) spoke inside the room to ask Biden what he would say to colleagues worried that Republicans will benefit from a weak disruption when they get the Senate back. Biden responded that the Republican Party is deeply divided at the moment and said Republicans would have trouble muddying priorities with a slim majority of 52 seats.
Addressing reporters briefly after the visit, the president noted the long odds he faces: “God’s honest answer is, I don’t know we can get it done.”
For some, it is clear that no amount of private pressure from Sinema’s colleagues, no public criticism from activists and no vote in the hall to change the rules will make her change her position.
“Obviously she was telegraphing that she wouldn’t change her mind,” said Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “So, there you are.”
Even with Sinema and Manchin’s recent comments, Schumer is giving no indication that he is backing down from his push for a vote on rule changes, even if it means splitting his 50-member party. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House will continue to fight.
But Psaki added that it is up to Schumer to decide what are the next steps for a bill that the party has portrayed, in stark terms, as necessary to save American democracy.
Psaki told reporters that Biden “believes it is right to make changes to the rules in order to pass voting rights and protect people’s basic rights.”
Biden has not yet given up on changing the centrist mentality. A White House official said he met with both Mansion and Cinema at the White House on Thursday evening.
Although next week’s vote on rule changes appears headed for failure, many senators want to keep plunging forward. Senator John Osoff (D-Georgia) delivered an emotional speech during Thursday’s meeting with Biden, introducing the Republican Party’s recent changes to voting laws — including in his state — and pleading with his colleagues for action. Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia), who will be elected to re-election this fall, said then that regardless of his colleagues’ opposition to the rule change, “the most important thing is to have voting rights, period.”
Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) argued that the upper house actually empowers the minority, given that states like Wyoming have as many senators as California. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat of VAT), the party’s top senator, questioned why the caucus could not unite around weakening the disruption.
During the last year of his four-decade Senate career, Leahy said, he would do whatever it took to get those bills passed.
“We’re going to have a lot of drama when we come to vote,” said Merkley, who was sitting on the Senate floor during the Cinematheque address. “Hope will be eternal for me, until it is crushed.”