Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday evening the Senate will delay its scheduled January recess and take up voting legislation on Tuesday despite major obstacles that appear to have closed off a path for Democrats to achieve that ambition.
“Make no mistake, the United States Senate will for the first time this Congress debate voting rights legislation beginning on Tuesday,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Schumer delayed the vote – which he’d pledged to hold by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday on Monday – citing Covid-19 and an impending winter storm. Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii announced on Thursday that he had tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, which complicated Democrats’ timeline.
Once the GOP blocks the election bill from advancing, as is anticipated, Schumer said the chamber will vote on a change to the Senate rules, which is also expected to fail.
His announcement comes after President Joe Biden met with influential moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema on Thursday evening in a push for the passage of voting legislation. Biden had “a candid and respectful exchange of views about voting rights” with the two senators, according to a statement from a White House official later that night. But both Manchin and Sinema had made clear publicly earlier in the day that there had been no change in their position against changing Senate rules to clear the way for voting legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Biden had vowed to keep fighting on voting rights during a visit to Capitol Hill earlier Thursday, but conceded that he doesn’t know if Democrats will be able to pass legislation they are pushing for.
“I hope we can get this done. The honest to god answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said. “I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure. But 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 a second time.”
“I don’t know that we can get it done, but I know one thing: As long as I have a breath in me, 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 are moving,” the President added.
Biden’s trip to Capitol Hill came after the President called on the Senate in a forceful speech on Tuesday to change its filibuster rules in order to pass voting legislation.
The problem facing Democrats is that they don’t have the votes to pass voting legislation under current Senate rules due to Republican opposition and they also do not appear to have the votes to change the rules.
Manchin and Sinema have long expressed opposition to eliminating the 60-vote threshold required to pass most legislation.
But Democratic leaders have so far been pressing ahead anyway with a plan to bring up voting legislation in the Senate. In the first step toward that, the House of Representatives passed voting legislation Thursday morning ahead of Biden’s visit.
The Democratic-controlled House approved a measure that combined key provisions of two voting bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It will next be sent to the Senate where a high-profile fight awaits.
In a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday, Sinema warned against further partisan division and calls to do away with the filibuster.
“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold on a party line with the thinnest of possible majorities to pass these bills that I support will not guarantee that we prevent demagogues from winning office,” she said. “Rather, eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come.”
Manchin later praised Sinema’s speech, telling reporters it was a “very good, excellent speech.”
Democrats are under intense pressure from grassroots activists and their voters to pass legislation to safeguard voting access but have continually hit a wall in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would need to join with all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to pass voting legislation in order to overcome a filibuster. Most Senate Republicans have dismissed attempts by Democrats to pass voting bills as reckless partisan overreach.
Biden’s decision to make a high-profile push on voting rights comes as a major pillar of his domestic agenda has stalled out, raising questions over what Democrats will be able to accomplish now, while they still control the White House and narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Late last year, Manchin said he could not support the sweeping social safety net expansion known as the Build Back Better Act. It is unclear if Democrats will be able to salvage any of the legislation in the aftermath of that setback.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc, Phil Mattingly, Kaitlan Collins, Manu Raju, Sam Fossum and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.