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White House walks back criticism of Democratic senators

By: - June 3, 2021 7:57 am

President Joe Biden (photo courtesy of the White House)

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday said that comments made earlier this week by President Joe Biden about “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends” were not a criticism of moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.

Biden did not name the senators, but they were widely considered to be the targets of his remarks, made as he discussed voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate and urged advocates to redouble their efforts.

Sinema, of Arizona, ranks third in the Senate in the current Congress when it comes to voting in opposition to her party, according to a ProPublica analysis. She is also a co-sponsor of the voting rights bill.

But she and Manchin, of West Virginia, have publicly opposed an end to the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and Sinema this week underlined that position.

Republicans are expected to use the filibuster to keep the Democrats’ much-desired voting rights bill from advancing, and the threat of a GOP filibuster hangs over other Democratic priorities as well.

Sinema at the same time has faced questions about her absence from a major procedural vote last week on establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, another priority for Democrats.

Asked about Biden’s remarks and their connection to Sinema and Manchin, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing on Wednesday: “He considers them both friends, he considers them both good working partners, and he also believes that in democracy we don’t have to see eye to eye on every detail of every single issue in order to work together, and he certainly thinks that reflects their relationship.”

Biden called out two unnamed senators for their voting records during a speech in Oklahoma on Tuesday. Biden’s visit came on the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, in which a white mob burned down a wealthy Black community nicknamed “Black Wall Street” and killed more than 150 African Americans.

Biden stressed the need to pass S.1 in the Senate, known as the For the People Act, which is a sweeping voting, campaign finance and election security reform package that is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to advance.

“I will have more to say about this at a later date—the truly unprecedented assault on our democracy, an effort to replace nonpartisan election administrators and to intimidate those charged with tallying and reporting the election results,” he said.

“But today, as for the act of voting itself, I urge voting rights groups in this country to begin to redouble their efforts now to register and educate voters.

“And in June—June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill. I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’ Well, because Biden only has a majority of, effectively, four votes in the House and a tie in the Senate,” Biden said, “with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”

The top two Senate Democrats who have voted against their party the most often in the current Congress are Manchin at 11% and Jon Tester of Montana at 3.2%, according to ProPublica. Sinema has voted against her party six times this Congress, or 2.8% of the time, putting her in third place, according to ProPublica.

During the 115th Congress, Sinema as a member of the U.S. House voted with former President Donald Trump 62.6% of the time and in the 116th Congress, as a senator, she voted with him 26.2% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

However, she has a 100 percent record of voting with Biden in this Congress.

Sinema’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to bring the voting rights bill to a vote, but to defeat a filibuster he would need 60 votes—10 Republicans to join his 48 Democrats and two independents who vote with Democrats.

“But we’re not giving up,” Biden said. “Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed ‘For the People Act’ to protect our democracy. The Senate will take it up later this month, and I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage.”

Sinema and Manchin have publicly said in the past they have no intention of eliminating the filibuster, although POLITICO earlier this year reported that at least seven other Democratic senators also said in interviews that at that time they were not willing to scrap the filibuster yet.

On the missed vote on the bipartisan Jan. 6 commission, Sinema said, according to the Arizona Republic, that she was absent because of a personal family matter. The bill failed to advance, 54-35, with 11 senators including Sinema not voting.

She also while in Tucson reiterated her opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

“To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and ‘X,’ I say, this is a false choice,” she said, according to the Republic.

“The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior,” she said.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana Figueroa covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom, a network of state-based nonprofit news outlets that includes The Missouri Independent. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.

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