It’s the kind of scenario that calls for the vote-moving muscle of a first-term president at the apex of his power. But in the bleak political math of contemporary Washington, such a jolt of energy from the commander in chief didn’t materialize. And it wouldn’t have mattered if it did.
Republicans crushed the effort at the first attempt, wielding the Senate’s filibuster rules — which require a 60-vote majority to advance the bill — to stop legislation with existential implications for the US democratic system, before it could even be debated.
The vote on Tuesday was the most tangible illustration yet of how having such a minuscule congressional majority will thwart liberal dreams of a presidency chock full of radical change, and how President Joe Biden’s power in such a scenario is clipped. The fact that Biden wasn’t leading the charge in such a critical fight reveals everything about the stark realities of power that define Washington in mid-2021 and offers insights into how he sees his presidency.
The events on Tuesday will add to the growing angst of progressives increasingly frustrated that Biden isn’t doing more for their cause. Despite the fury on the left, moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona showed they were no closer to voting to abolish the filibuster. And a day of political theater also showed how in tightly divided Washington, it’s often only those whose goal is to achieve nothing — in this case, the GOP — that get what they want.
‘The fight is not over’
It’s not that Biden doesn’t want sweeping voting revisions to pass. He has slammed Republican election bills in the state legislatures that he argues discriminate against Black voters, calling them tantamount to the repression of the Jim Crow era. And GOP state legislation may damage Democratic hopes in 2022 and 2024.
Yet at the same time, Biden was hardly throwing everything he had at passing the legislation in the Senate. He didn’t tour the nation to drum up support. The first real sign of a White House grassroots campaign on voting rights came when Vice President Kamala Harris dove into a crowd of reporters after presiding over the vote and issued a battle cry meant to resonate through the Democratic base.
“The fight is not over,” declared Harris, who has been charged by the President with leading the voting rights battle. It was a moment of drama that seemed to indicate that, with the congressional route blocked, Democrats will make the issue the foundation of their bid to fire up their base in the midterm elections.
That a Washington veteran like Biden chose not to nail his presidential prestige to the voting rights push shows he knew it was doomed.
“I don’t think there is anything he could have done that would have materially changed what happened today,” said David Axelrod, a former top Barack Obama strategist and a senior CNN political analyst, predicting that Biden would concentrate on issues important to the American people that he could get done.
To that end, the President will address a spike in violence and gun crime at the White House on Wednesday. The appearance will put him on another knife edge — between suburban voters who might be susceptible to an alarmist GOP message of rampant lawlessness and Black Democrats responsible for sending him on a path to his party’s presidential nomination and later the White House, many of whom are deeply skeptical of more police enforcement.
But the fact that valuable presidential time is being dedicated to the issue is a sign that Biden understands its potency out in the country, even if it is not necessarily the focus of the most engaged Democratic lawmakers and activists.
Biden now badly needs an infrastructure win
It became clear in recent days that, in the short term at least, the President is mostly invested in a possible bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans.
It was noticeable that before the vote, Harris spent time with Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and an administration official said they talked about infrastructure. The President’s infrastructure negotiating team was also on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
But the rules of politics also mean that Tuesday’s defeat increases pressure on Biden to get a win on infrastructure to prove his political viability, and especially following his concessions on the size and scope of the proposal.
By keeping his eye on the infrastructure prize rather than the always-unlikely-to-pass voting bill, Biden showed a preference for politics as the art of the possible. This fits the persona of a Prsident who said earlier this year that he had been sent to the White House to solve the problems of the American people — but also to forge the kind of unity shattered by the Trump era.
Despite his ambitious plans to transform the economy and the safety net to benefit working people, Biden also campaigned in 2020 as a moderate.
His nonconfrontational behavior since has helped keep his approval rating around 50% — more than most Washington politicians.
So while no White House staffer would say it out loud, failing to enact a bill branded by Republicans as a massive power grab may not be all bad news for the President.
Presidents who do poorly in midterm elections often flounder because they are judged to have overreached. At this point, that’s a tough charge to bring against Biden’s legislative record.
Progressives face a hard choice
In the wake of Tuesday’s defeat, progressives have a choice over how they apply their leverage. Sen. Mazie Hirono encapsulated the frustration of the left on Tuesday when she warned that all the party’s priorities would be blocked.
“If we don’t make the changes to the filibuster, then I think we are going to look at losing the House and Senate anyway,” the Hawaii Democrat said.
Some liberals hoped that filibustering of Democratic priorities by Republicans — as also happened with a push for a bipartisan, independent commission on the January 6 insurrection — might convince Manchin to change his mind.
But he scotched that idea after Tuesday’s vote.
“I think you all know where I stand on the filibuster,” Manchin, who represents a state that Trump twice won, told reporters.
Sinema laid out a similar stand in a Washington Post op-ed, arguing like her West Virginia colleague that the filibuster would protect Democrats if Republicans win back the Senate.
The painful truth for progressives, meanwhile, is that they failed in their hopes of capturing a significantly bigger majority in last year’s election. Even two more senators would have weakened the influence of Manchin and Sinema, and perhaps brought changes to the filibuster closer.
Now they must seek other ways to influence the President as their focus turns to a spending bill of up to $6 trillion that would include priorities snipped from Biden’s proposal to attract Republicans.
Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York had told CNN ahead of Tuesday’s Senate vote that Biden wasn’t “absent” on voting rights but needed to do far more. And he warned that the small Democratic House majority could be in doubt without promises to enact progressive priorities.
“This is the time for us to be visionary and bold and lead as a Democratic Party,” Bowman said on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” “You cannot guarantee I will vote for an infrastructure package that goes smaller.”
But the conundrum for progressives is this: The only way to demonstrate their influence may be to play a spoiler role on a priority that just became an even bigger must-pass for a President of their own party.