Democrats Rethink Strategy as Filibuster Dashed

WASHINGTON — President Biden and Senate Democrats confronted a narrowing set of options on Monday for moving ahead with their ambitious agenda, as the reality set in that they would not be able to maneuver past rules that empower Republicans to block most of their legislative proposals.

Unequivocal statements from Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia on Sunday that he would oppose a broad voting rights bill and never vote to end the legislative filibuster cast a cloud over a Washington tenuously controlled by Mr. Manchin’s party. They forced Democrats to weigh a two-track strategy in which they would be reduced to holding symbolic votes to spotlight Republican intransigence on their highest priorities and limiting their legislative hopes to whatever could be muscled through under fast-track budget reconciliation rules.

Publicly, Democrats said they were not giving up on the voting rights legislation, nor would they confine their legislative agenda to measures that had significant numbers of Republican supporters. But they conceded that they were rethinking how to move forward in a 50-50 Senate where their most important swing vote had effectively declared that he would not support any measure that lacked Republican support.

“Right now we should assume that H.R. 1 is not going to pass the Senate, so we need to figure out what can,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said of the voting rights measure, also known as the For the People Act.

“We do need to start testing this idea that the filibuster promotes bipartisanship,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who is trying to find 10 Republicans to back legislation imposing universal background checks on gun buyers. “I would hope that everyone is open to having their theories proved wrong if they don’t have evidence to prove their theories right.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, dismissed Democrats’ strategy as “an agenda transparently designed to fail — and fail they will.”

For several months, work on a range of issues beyond voting rights, including climate change, immigration and pay equity, was proceeding as if the Senate could change the rules on the filibuster if necessary. A separate effort was underway to bring Mr. Manchin on board as the 50th vote for the voting rights measure.

On Monday, reality had begun to set in.

And that reality will mean that where possible, Mr. Biden will have to use executive actions to achieve many of his goals, such as reimposing strict regulations on power plants, automobiles and trucks to combat climate change.

And Senate Democrats will have to use a budget rule called reconciliation to avoid a Republican filibuster of tax increases, infrastructure projects, measures to combat climate change and social welfare spending on health care, universal preschool and higher education.

Activist groups could hardly contain their anger.

“Joe Manchin should worry about what history will say on where he stood when voting rights were under attack,” said Stasha Rhodes, an organizer of a coalition pressing for voting rights protections, Just Democracy.

Mr. Schumer said on Monday that he had no intention of shelving the voting rights bill, which would nullify laws passed by 14 Republican-controlled state legislatures to curtail early and mail-in voting, empower partisan poll watching and give elected legislatures more power over election outcomes. Senate Democrats were to meet on Tuesday to discuss the path forward, the same day Mr. Manchin was set to meet with Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., and Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, to hear their pleas for his support.

Regardless of Mr. Manchin’s position, Mr. Schumer said a vote would be called the week of June 24, as planned, “to protect voting rights and American democracy.”

“My colleagues need to be put on the record and held accountable,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said on Monday.

At the same time, Mr. Biden and Senate Democratic leaders were working to keep Mr. Manchin on board with a push for a major infrastructure package. Mr. Biden was scheduled to speak again on Tuesday with Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the lead Republican negotiator, to discuss the scope of an infrastructure bill and how to pay for it. And senators were engaging Mr. Manchin on potential enticements for his vote, such as a long-sought clean manufacturing initiative that has already been incorporated in the Finance Committee’s provisions to pay for spending on roads, bridges, tunnels and transit.

Still, Democrats had to concede that their initial efforts to sway Mr. Manchin on perhaps their highest priority — the voting rights measure — had fallen flat after a weekslong effort. Democrats had been pursuing an inside-outside approach, deploying liberal organizations and civil rights activists to pressure Mr. Manchin politically, while small groups of senators reached out to him privately to identify his substantive concerns with the voting rights bill and what could be tweaked or jettisoned to win him over.

But Mr. Manchin did not lodge any specific policy objections that could be resolved. He simply wanted at least one Republican to support the bill — effectively handing a veto to the minority party.

Democrats do have options. They could, for instance, break the For the People Act into separate measures to expand voting rights, rein in campaign finance abuses and restore ethical standards and transparency in the executive branch shattered by Donald J. Trump.

White House officials also pointed out that there were areas of cooperation to be found: The Senate is poised to confirm the first round of federal judges nominated by Mr. Biden this week, as well as pass a huge piece of industrial policy legislation meant to curb the competitive threat from China.

In a lengthy statement that outlined several of Mr. Biden’s policy successes, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said the president “and his team are continuing to put their all into his legislative agenda every single day.”

But liberal Democrats and voting rights groups on Monday flashed frustration, not just with Mr. Manchin but with the White House, which they see as insufficiently engaged in an issue that they believe has democracy in the balance. The nightmare scenario liberals are putting forward is that Republicans seize control of Congress and expand their control over state governments next year, in part because of restrictive voting laws. Then they use their new power to nullify the results of close state contests in 2024 to deliver the White House back to the G.O.P.

Last week, Mr. Biden directed Vice President Kamala Harris to pursue voting rights protections. She promptly headed to Central America to deal with her other big issue, the surge of migrants at the southwestern border.

“He said he’d use every tool at his disposal and he would ‘fight like heck,’” Stephen Spaulding, the senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at the voting rights group Common Cause, said about Mr. Biden’s recent remarks about advancing the For the People Act through the Senate. “Now is the time.”

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