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Biden voices uncertainty about passing voting rights bills after meeting with Democrats

"I hope we can get this done," Biden told reporters on Capitol Hill following the meeting. "But the honest to god answer is, I don’t know whether we can get this done."

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday expressed uncertainty over whether his party would be able to pass voting rights legislation through Congress after he emerged from a closed-door luncheon with Senate Democrats.

Despite his attempt at making a direct appeal to Democrats, Biden appeared less confident than before about overcoming the hurdles of getting the measures approved.

"I hope we can get this done, but I'm not sure," Biden told reporters on Capitol Hill following the meeting. "The honest to god answer is, I don’t know whether we can get this done."

"But one thing for certain — one thing for certain: Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time. We missed this time. We missed this time," he said.

"It's about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote. Who counts the vote? That's what this is about. That's what makes this so different than anything else we've ever done," Biden added. "But I know one thing: As long as I have a breath in me and as long as I'm in the White House, as long as I'm engaged at all, I'm going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have moving."

His remarks came a few hours after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., made clear that she won't vote to gut the filibuster rule to ease passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Sinema said she supports the two bills but continues to favor the 60-vote rule, which Democrats have no hope of clearing due to overwhelming Republican opposition to the bills. Her remarks signaled that the aggressive efforts to persuade her to change Senate rules have failed.

"There's no need for me to restate my longstanding support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation," Sinema said on the Senate floor in a speech about "the disease of division" in the United States. "It is the view I continue to hold."

Sinema's position means the two voting bills have no viable path to passage.

Biden met behind closed doors with Senate Democrats during their regular caucus lunch. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the president would “make the strong case” to lawmakers that he made publicly in his speech in Atlanta, in which he called for an end to the filibuster to allow for passage of federal voting rights bills.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will also both be “working the phones” to put pressure on reluctant lawmakers, Psaki said.

Prior to Biden's arrival Thursday, the House voted 220-203 along party lines to pass the two voting rights bills in one package. The Senate will receive it as a “message,” enabling Democrats to open debate on the package with a simple majority, without Republican votes.

But they're guaranteed to hit a roadblock when they need 60 votes to break a filibuster and end debate in the 50-50 Senate. The Freedom to Vote Act has no Republican support. The John Lewis bill has one GOP backer: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Democrats have been discussing a rule change in the Senate that would allow them to circumvent a GOP blockade of the bills. But that would require unanimous support in the caucus.

Apart from Sinema, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also supports the 60-vote rule, saying in a statement after Biden's visit to Capitol Hill: "As I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster."

Manchin and Sinema met with Biden at the White House on Thursday evening for a little more than an hour. In a statement after the meeting, a White House official said they had "a candid and respectful exchange of views about voting rights."

Shortly after that meeting, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., abruptly announced that the Senate would adjourn and return Tuesday to debate voting rights legislation. He cited the winter storm forecast to hit the Washington area this weekend and unspecified "circumstances regarding Covid."

Earlier in the day, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he had tested positive for Covid and was isolating at home. Without him or a GOP absence, Democrats would not have the numbers to bring the voting rights bills to the floor over united GOP opposition.

The delay means Schumer will not meet his goal of holding a vote on the legislation by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on Monday.

If Republicans filibuster the legislation, Schumer said Thursday night, Democrats will “consider and vote on changing Senate rules” to enable passage of the bills by a majority vote.

In a post on Medium Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of Democratic leadership, stressed that her party shouldn’t let the filibuster stop them from passing historic reforms.

“To be absolutely clear: we cannot let the filibuster stop us from ever debating voting rights or any other issue one member might find objectionable,” Murray wrote. “If it's the filibuster or democracy, I'll choose our democracy. If it’s Senate rules or a Senate that works for the American people, I'll choose a Senate that works.”

In an op-ed for USA Today, former President Barack Obama wrote that the filibuster has no basis in the Constitution and has in recent years become a “routine way” for the Senate minority to block progress on issues supported by a majority of voters.

“We can’t allow it to be used to block efforts to protect our democracy. That’s why I fully support President Joe Biden’s call to modify Senate rules as necessary to make sure pending voting rights legislation gets called for a vote,” he wrote.

The Freedom to Vote Act would create a set of standards for federal elections to ensure that voters have similar access to the ballot box nationwide. It would require states to offer a minimum number of days for early voting and the ability to vote by mail for any reason. It would also make Election Day a national holiday.

The bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., would update the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark legislation that barred discriminatory election laws.