US President Joe Biden says he's 'not sure' his voting rights agenda will get through the Senate

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden had a rough Thursday with near certain defeat in the Senate on his major voting rights bill and a stinging setback to his Covid-fighting strategy when the Supreme Court threw out vaccine mandates.

The Supreme Court ruled against Biden’s Covid-19 test-or-vaccine mandate on large businesses, a key component in the administration’s bid to control the spread of the Omicron variant when only 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

Biden had issued the mandate for companies with 100 employees or more to insist on vaccinations or regular testing as a way to put a lid on the stunning spread of the latest Covid variant.

However, conservatives portrayed the mandates as government overreach, turning the policy into a fierce political and legal fight that illustrated Biden’s limited powers.

The Democrat got another blow, this time from his own party, when it became clear that there wasn’t enough support to push two voting protections laws that he says are crucial to saving US democracy through the Senate.

“I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure,” he conceded after a lunch with party senators.

Biden had gone up to Congress to try and wrangle Democrats into carrying out a tricky legislative maneuver that would change a Senate rule and let them get the bills passed, despite total Republican opposition.

But before the president even arrived for his lunch with legislators, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema gave a speech explaining that while she backed the voting rights bills themselves, she would not agree to changing the rule, known as the filibuster.

Sinema said that simply bypassing the filibuster, which requires a supermajority and therefore some Republican support for a Democratic bill, would deepen the country’s biggest problem – “the disease of division.”

Later, a second senator, Joe Manchin from West Virginia, also made clear he opposed breaking the filibuster, even if he supported the bills themselves. Unless they both change minds, the measures look set to die.

Biden argues that the national voting rights bills are vital to preserving US democracy against Republican attempts to exclude Black and other predominantly Democratic voters through a spate of recently enacted laws at the local level.

Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 40 percent range, and Republicans are in a good position to take control of Congress from the Democrats in the November midterm elections, meaning time is running out for him to get major legislation passed.

- Democratic hold outs -

President Joe Biden faces Democratic infighting as well as Republican opposition in Congress

Ironically, in an era of implacable Republican-Democratic divide, the Republicans aren’t Biden’s most immediate problem.

His Democrats control the Senate by just one vote, and that’s not enough under currently accepted rules to pass most laws, which instead require a supermajority including some opposition participation.

That filibuster rule has allowed Republicans to gum up the Democrats’ work in the Senate repeatedly over Biden’s first year in office.

Sinema and Manchin argue that the filibuster is too established a procedure to be broken unilaterally by one party.

Biden had asked for an exception, allowing the Democrats to change the rule temporarily and vote for the election bills on a simple majority basis – effectively cutting out the Republicans.

But just changing the rule would require unanimous Democratic approval, giving Sinema and Manchin effectively veto power. A similar scenario played out a month ago when Biden’s major climate and social spending project, the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better bill, sank because Manchin refused to give his support.

Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate and a key Biden ally, said the fight for the voting bills was not over.

“The president made a powerful and strong and impassioned presentation for us to get things done, and we are going to do everything we can to pass these two bills,” he said.

But with his prestige on the line, Biden is in an uncomfortable spot.

African-Americans are at the heart of the Democratic coalition, and some influential leaders have already criticized Biden for doing too little, too late on election laws – an issue steeped in a history of racism and attempts to restrict Black votes.

On the other side, Republicans are using Biden’s big push to argue that he has abandoned his centrist roots and turned far-left.