WASHINGTON — For Democrats, the week began with plans for an epic showdown featuring the fight for voting legislation and a battle against Senate rules.
Instead, the week ended with a fizzle — no votes and a promise to return next week to try again. But even the delay, forced by one Senate Democrat who tested positive for Covid-19 and had to isolate, may still be for naught since no one has managed to convince the two holdouts to change their minds.
Democrats, after weeks of trying to blame Republicans for the holdup, instead ended up fighting among themselves about their willingness to change Senate rules to pass the bills on a party-line vote.
President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders have described the fight 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 Freedom To Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, both of which have unanimous Democratic support but no hope of achieving the 60 needed to defeat a filibuster.
"Make no mistake, the United States Senate will, for the first time this Congress, debate voting rights legislation beginning on Tuesday," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday night before adjourning the chamber for the long weekend.
"And if the Senate Republicans choose obstruction over protecting the sacred right to vote, as we expect them to, the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules," he said.
It was a week that reminded Democrats how fragile their power is in Washington, despite controlling the White House and Congress. Wafer-thin majorities, even when unified, aren't enough to pass some of Biden's campaign promises while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., strongly support keeping the 60-vote Senate rule to pass most legislation.
The Senate was prepared to at least debate the issue using a workaround triggered by the House passage of the two bills. But an unexpected positive Covid test for Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, torpedoed those hopes in the 50-50 Senate.
A year of lobbying and pressure campaigns by Democratic leaders, congressional colleagues, progressive advocates and the civil rights community fell flat with Manchin and Sinema, who say they support the voting bills but remain unwilling to change the rules to push them through.
The issue is a high priority for Democratic constituencies, and Schumer appears to want to put every senator on record casting a vote, even if it ends in an embarrassing defeat for the party. A battle that party leaders hoped would galvanize their base and put political pressure on Republicans has instead transformed into a bitter internal fight between Democrats.
A fiery speech by Biden on Tuesday in Atlanta failed to change the minds of Manchin and Sinema, even as the president, a 36-year veteran of the Senate himself, described it as a struggle to rescue American democracy from restrictive voting laws in Republican-led states and former President Donald Trump's attempts to subvert elections.
Biden said the moment necessitates a rule change, arguing that every senator must decide whether to side with the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. or the segregationist George Wallace.
Sinema disagreed. Prior to his arrival Thursday on Capitol Hill to make his case to Senate Democrats, she took to the Senate floor and put a dagger in the effort. She said she continues to support the 60-vote threshold, arguing that without it, the United States will see "wild reversals in federal policy" and governance that is "pushed from the middle toward 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 that the effort may fail. But he noted that prior civil rights measures also failed before they could pass, and that the bills could be revived later.
"I hope we can get this done," 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 couldn't hide their disappointment.
"It's disheartening," Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., said Friday on MSNBC, calling the remarks by Manchin and Sinema "a setback."
He said he's "hoping against hope" the bills can still pass the Senate.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., appeared Friday on CNN and criticized Sinema, saying that Arizonans are "very unhappy" with her for "blocking voting rights legislation." He said she's hewing to "ancient principles" about Senate tradition and called her views "inconsistent" with constituents.
He also kept the door open to challenging her in a Democratic primary in 2024 but said he won't decide until after the midterm elections.
"I never say no to the future," Gallego said, adding that for the time being, he'll keep having public meetings, "something that she should try to do once in a while."