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A loss on voting rights will hurt Biden; failure to try would have hurt more

President Biden speaks in Atlanta in support of voting rights legislation.
President Biden speaks Tuesday in Atlanta to urge the Senate to pass voting rights legislation.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

President Biden devoted this week to something prominent political figures seldom do — he jumped onto a sinking ship.

Presidents, regardless of party, typically try to distance themselves from losses, reflecting the belief that victories beget victories while failures make a leader appear weak. Biden, who already suffers from voters’ perception that he is not strong, might have even more reason than most to avoid enlisting in a losing fight.

Despite that, Tuesday found the president in Atlanta, delivering an impassioned speech in which he demanded that the Senate pass voting rights legislation that has languished for nearly a year and announced support for changes in the filibuster rule to make that possible without Republicans’ support. On Thursday, he waded deeper into the fray, traveling to Capitol Hill to exhort Senate Democrats to get the job done.

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There’s no sign that Biden’s efforts have changed the outcome: Republicans remain united and Democrats divided.

At least two Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, oppose the rule changes that would be needed to end a Republican filibuster. On Thursday, just hours before Biden went to Capitol Hill, Sinema took to the Senate floor and undercut him, ruling out significant changes in the rules.

“While I continue to support these bills,” she said, referring to the voting rights measures, “I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division affecting our country.”

A career-long focus

Biden’s willingness to spend political capital on an all-but-certain defeat — and endorse changes in Senate rules that he has long resisted — has generated considerable comment in Washington, but the rationale isn’t hard.

The first — but not the only — reason for Biden’s action is simple: Backing the Voting Rights Act has been a major part of his career for decades.

Democrats have pushed two big voting bills in the current Congress: One would establish nationwide rules for elections and limit gerrymandering. The other would restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act that were undermined by Supreme Court decisions in recent years. On Thursday, in a procedural move, the House combined the two into one measure and sent it to the Senate.

Many Democratic activists have focused on the first bill, which they see as key to stopping Republican efforts to make voting harder and entrench GOP majorities in red states.

Biden, however, focused much of his speech on the second, and his commitment to the subject was clear.

Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act in 1965, aiming, after nearly a century of failure, to enforce the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that the right of citizens to vote would not be denied on account of race. It was one of the most sweeping — and most successful — legislative acts of the civil rights era, enfranchising millions of Black voters across the South. The law’s extension to cover language minorities had a profound impact, as well, especially in the West, where it opened the way for political representation for Latino and Asian American communities.

During Biden’s 35 years in the Senate, lawmakers expanded and extended the law four times, with Biden playing a significant role each time. He was especially important in 1992, when as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he steered the legislation through the Senate, winning the support of 25 of 43 Republican senators.

Those legislative battles mostly followed the same pattern: The Supreme Court would issue decisions interpreting the law narrowly, then Congress would expand the law to effectively reverse those rulings, typically with some Republicans joining a large majority of Democrats.

That longstanding pattern abruptly broke down in the last decade. In 2013, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote a decision in a case called Shelby vs. Holder that eviscerated a key part of the act, saying that states it covered — mostly those in the South — no longer had to receive advance approval from the Justice Department for changes in their election laws. If Congress wanted to restore that process, known as pre-clearance, it could, but it would first have to update the law, Roberts ruled.

Instead, Congress stalemated. Almost no Republicans have been willing to back efforts to restore the law.

Biden’s frustration at that partisan change was palpable Tuesday when he recalled that as recently as 2006, several current Republican senators voted in favor of renewing the law.

“Sadly, the United States Senate — designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body — has been rendered a shell of its former self,” he said. “It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate.”

But Biden’s personal stake in the voting law wasn’t the only factor driving his actions. Another, also clear from his speech, was his effort to mend a growing rift in his party by focusing attention on the other side.

In the debates over the voting law, Democratic activists have vented their frustration at Manchin and Sinema and on the White House for failing to join efforts to change the filibuster rules. That has deepened tensions within the party, already high because of the failure, so far, to agree on Biden’s social-spending and climate-change agenda.

By announcing his support for filibuster reform, Biden sought to redirect that ire toward Republicans. If 10 Republicans were to join in backing the voting bill, it would have the 60 votes it needed, rendering the debate over the rules moot. And, in the past, Biden repeatedly said, some Republicans have always backed the voting rights law.

“The people who restored it, who abided by it in the past were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. They all supported the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

The problem for Biden is that there’s no way to turn the spotlight away from the two holdout Democrats. The only roll call this bill will get will happen sometime in the coming week if Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York sticks to his plan to try to change the Senate’s rules. He has said he’ll do so, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

While all Senate Republicans are expected to vote no, it will be Manchin and Sinema’s votes that will seal the defeat.

Voting rights activists had hoped that stepped-up public pressure would cause the two to change their positions. Such tactics worked in earlier civil rights fights. But there’s little evidence that this issue has caught on with a wide swath of the public, despite the intense interest it has generated among activists.

A recent nationwide survey for the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center asked Americans, “Which problems would you like the government to be working on in the year 2022.” People could list up to five. Only 6% mentioned voting laws, voting issues or similar language. Of those who did, more than 80% said they had little or no confidence that the government would act.

If this latest effort fails, as expected, Biden almost surely will pay some political price. Losses hurt, even when they’re widely anticipated.

But the lack of intense public interest that has stymied the legislation may, ironically, dampen the political damage. People can only be so disappointed about the failure of a bill they weren’t pinning hopes on in the first place.

For Biden, voting rights was a fight that couldn’t be ducked. When the Senate finishes, however, the road to repairing his damaged political standing will remain as it has always been: Convince voters that his policies are working to get COVID-19 under control and restore the economy to health. The battle to achieve those goals will start again next week.

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The politics of Omicron

The Supreme Court delivered a mixed result to the administration on vaccine mandates. The justices, by a 6-3, vote blocked Biden’s plan to require that most workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. But they upheld 5-4 a more targeted regulation covering healthcare workers. As David Savage wrote, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh were the court’s swing voters, siding with their fellow conservatives on the first ruling, but with the court’s three liberals on the other.

As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus swamps hospitals with new cases, Biden said he would reinforce the country’s healthcare system and make more COVID-19 tests available, Anumita Kaur and Chris Megerian reported.

Experts say, however, that some of today’s problems are rooted in a failure by the administration to prepare months ago for more contagious strains of the virus, Kaur and Megerian wrote.

“They underestimated this virus,” said Dr. Rick Bright, a public health expert at the Rockefeller Foundation and a former member of Biden’s transition team.

United States of California

Huron, a neglected, impoverished farmworker community in California’s Central Valley, has emerged as an unlikely testing ground for how electric vehicles can serve the transportation needs of the rural poor, Evan Halper reported.

The story is the latest in his series on California’s outsized impact on public policy nationwide.

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The latest from California

Despite early concerns that the pandemic would weaken the state’s economy, tax revenue continues to soar, handing a huge benefit to Gov. Gavin Newsom as he heads into his campaign for reelection in November, Taryn Luna wrote.

“He’s sitting on a massive budget surplus that is every politician’s dream,” said Susan Kennedy, a top aide to former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. “He’s got no credible opposition to reelection and the wind at his back.”

On Thursday, Newsom cleared one potentially contentious item off his desk, refusing to grant parole to Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. A state parole board panel had recommended parole for Sirhan, but in a statement and a longer opinion article in the Los Angeles Times, the governor said that Sirhan still refuses to accept responsibility for the assassination and remains a danger to society.

Newsom wants to shift home construction in California away from rural, wildfire-prone areas and toward urban cores as part of his $286.4-billion budget plan that aims to align the state’s housing strategy with its climate goals, Hannah Wiley wrote.

The governor also has proposed adding an estimated 700,000 immigrants without legal status to the state’s healthcare program for low-income residents. But some Democratic lawmakers painted that as a “status quo” idea as they pushed for a much broader restructuring of healthcare in California, Melody Gutierrez reported.

Lack of support from Newsom is just one of many hurdles in the path of that proposal for a single-payer healthcare system in the state, George Skelton wrote.

One thing that’s not a serious hurdle is the state Republican Party, which is conspicuously failing to provide a credible check on the majority Democrats, Mark Barabak wrote in his column. “For the good of the GOP — and the good of California — Republicans need to stop their self-gratifying but ultimately self-defeating political behavior,” he wrote.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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