Democrats are flummoxed about the next move on President Biden’s plan to blow up the filibuster and rewrite the nation’s voting laws after support among Senate Democrats fractured.
Lawmakers say retreating from the fight is impossible after Mr. Biden wed himself in gutting the chamber’s longstanding filibuster rule that requires 60 votes for most bills to survive.
“A lot of us in the Senate have loyalty to the president and his agenda,” said a Democratic lawmaker who requested anonymity discussing the intraparty dynamics. “He went out on a limb, we can’t just leave him there alone. It will look like a Democratic Congress is abandoning a Democratic president and a Democratic agenda.”
Since the 2020 election, Democrats have argued that federal action is required to combat a slew of new voting laws in Republican-run states. Last year, Democrats attempted no less than three times to pass legislation overturning the new state election laws, which the GOP call election security measures such as voter ID requirements and restrictions on mail-in ballots.
While the Democrats’ efforts garnered unanimous support within their party, the bills failed to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a GOP filibuster in the 50-50 split Senate. Instead of giving up the fight, Democrats began angling to use the so-called “nuclear option” to blow up the filibuster.
“Members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as this one,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
Although the effort was always a long shot, Mr. Biden embraced the cause wholeheartedly. The president lobbied lawmakers privately and publicly, even traveling to Capitol Hill to address Senate Democrats in person.
Mr. Biden also tried to leverage the bully pulpit of the presidency, traveling to Georgia earlier this week to highlight the state’s new voter law as a tool to “disenfranchise anyone who votes against” Republicans.
“Do you want to be the side of Dr. [Martin Luther] King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis,” said Mr. Biden. “This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”
The feat proved impossible. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, announced her opposition on Thursday, effectively dooming the effort. Although Ms. Sinema pledged support for Mr. Biden’s effort to overturn state election laws, she said that doing so at the expense of the filibuster would only further the “disease of division.”
“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy,” she said.
The announcement, which came shortly before Mr. Biden was set to address a special session of the Senate Democratic caucus, threw Capitol Hill into pandemonium.
Mr. Schumer was planning to have the Senate begin debate on two partisan voting measures shortly after the president’s visit. The end goal would be to schedule a vote on blowing up the filibuster after the bills failed.
The schedule wound up being scrapped, instead. Mr. Schumer kept a vote on Russian sanctions open for more than six hours while Democrats debated behind the scenes on how to move forward.
Eventually, Mr. Schumer adjourned the chamber, pledging to bring lawmakers back next week to debate the voting measures and put every senator on the record when it comes to the filibuster.
“If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level,” said Mr. Schumer. “In the coming days we will confront this sobering question, and every member will go on record.”
Legislative experts question the viability of the strategy. They say that while it is understandable that Democrats want to stand by Mr. Biden, doing so at this moment is not pragmatic as defeat is predetermined.
“There’s no question Democrats have overplayed their hand,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “They have not taken cognizance of how close the House and particularly the Senate are … The smart thing would be to pivot and move on to other subjects, but all the subjects are bad — inflation is high, immigration is a mess and the supply chain crisis is scandalous.”
Mr. Biden’s domestic policy troubles, coupled with the demise last year of his $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate change package, are certainly an influence. Democrats say that abandoning another of the White House’s priorities, especially when his approval rating among voters has sunk to as low as 33% in recent polls, would be unfair to Mr. Biden and all those that helped elect him in the first place.
“I think this is a fight that we have to have as a country, even if an outcome I like is not guaranteed,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat. “Presidents and leaders of all kinds are measured by the things they’re willing to fight for.”
Complicating matters is that Democrats are worried about the political implications of abandoning Mr. Biden while he advocates for overhauling votings laws, an issue increasingly import to the party base.
“Democrats should absolutely force a vote on this issue,” said Colin Strother, a Democratic political strategist. “Voting rights will be an ongoing hot topic and somewhat of a litmus test in [Democratic] primaries around the country.”
• Haris Alic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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