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In Senate vote, Biden sees ‘step forward’ for elections bill

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key infrastructure negotiator, pauses for reporters after working behind closed doors with other Democrats in a basement room at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Monday it views the Senate’s work on an elections bill overhaul and changes being offered by Sen. Joe Manchin as a “step forward,” even though the Democrats’ priority legislation is expected to be blocked by a Republican filibuster.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the revisions proposed by Manchin are a compromise, another step as Democrats work to shore up voting access and what President Joe Biden sees as “a fight of his presidency.”

“The president’s effort to continue that fight doesn’t stop tomorrow at all,” Psaki said.

The Senate is preparing for a showdown Tuesday, a test vote of the For the People Act, a sweeping elections bill that would be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting procedures in a generation. A top priority for Democrats seeking to ensure access to the polls and mail in ballots made popular during the pandemic, it is a opposed by Republicans as a federal overreach into state systems.

Manchin had been the sole holdout among Democrats in the Senate, declining to back his party’s bill. But late last week the West Virginian aired a list of proposed changes that are being well received by his party, and a nod from the White House will give them currency. He has suggested adding a national voter ID requirement, which has been popular among Republicans, and dropping other measures from the bill like its proposed public financing of campaigns.

Among voting rights advocates, one key voice, Democrat Stacey Abrams, has said she could support Manchin’s proposal.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, it is clear Democrats in the split 50-50 Senate will be unable to open debate, blocked by a filibuster by Republicans. In the Senate, it takes 60 votes to overcome the filibuster, and without any Republican support, the Democrats cannot move forward.

“Will the Republicans let us debate it?” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as he opened the chamber Monday. “We’re about to find out.”

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has said no Republican will support the bill, calling the legislation a “partisan power grab” that would erode local control of elections.

While some Democrats want to change the filibuster rules to push the elections bill through, Manchin and other senators are opposed to taking that next move. Psaki said the administration’s hope is that the chamber’s 50 Democrats are aligned and that an unsuccessful vote will prompt the search for a new path.

The White House didn’t give its full support to the Manchin alternative. But Biden met with Manchin on Monday at the White House and offered his “sincere appreciation” for the senator’s efforts, a White House official said. The president also emphasized how important it is for the Senate to find a path forward on voting rights reforms.

The sweeping voting reform bill is taking on fresh urgency as former President Donald Trump continues to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election, and is urging on Republican-led states that are imposing new voting rules in the states.

State officials who certified the results of the 2020 election have dismissed Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, and judges across the country who have dismissed multiple lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies. Trump’s own attorney general said at the time there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would change the outcome.

The changes being put in place in many of the Republican states are being decried by voting rights advocates who argue the restrictions will make it more difficult for people to cast ballots, particularly minority residents in cities who tend to support Democrats.

As the Senate action churns, more changes could be coming to the bill.

Democrats want to add protections against intimidation at the polls and during the vote-counting process in the aftermath of the 2020 election. They propose enhancing penalties for those who would threaten or intimidate election workers and creating a “buffer zone” between election workers and poll watchers, among other possible changes.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., a lead sponsor of the bill, said the effort underway is to “respond to the growing threat of election subversion in GOP-led states across the country.”

Democrats also want to limit the ability of state officials to remove a local election official without cause. Georgia Republicans passed a state law earlier this year that gives the GOP-dominated legislature greater influence over a state board that regulates elections and empowers it to remove local election officials deemed to be underperforming.

“The dangers of the voter suppression efforts we’re seeing in Georgia and across the nation are not theoretical, and we can’t allow power-hungry state actors to squeeze the people out of their own democracy by overruling the decisions of local election officials,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is working to advance the proposal in the Senate.

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

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