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Biden talks with senators about voting rights

President Joe Biden held a virtual meeting with some senators on Thursday to discuss a potential path forward on voting rights legislation. The call comes as his climate and social spending package, known as the Build Back Better Act, is still being debated by Senate Democrats.

Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, spoke via Zoom with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Alex Padilla of California, according to two sources familiar with the call. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, also participated.

A day ago, Mr. Biden said that "there's nothing domestically more important than voting rights. It's the single biggest issue." Senators who participated in the call said it was an "encouraging conversation."

"We had a very good meeting with the president, the vice president on the voting bill with Senator Manchin and the group of us that work on voting rights," Klobuchar said on Capitol Hill Thursday. "And we're continuing to negotiate on the Senate rules to restore the Senate."

Biden Voting Rights
Protesters gather outside the White House to urge the Biden administration to pursue voting rights legislation, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. Patrick Semansky / AP

Warnock didn't provide specific details about the call, but said that Democrats continue to have "robust conversations" on possible rule changes and hope to have a "path forward" on voting rights before the Senate recesses for the holidays. 

"We're all focused on it. We understand the moment is urgent and we've got to get this done," Warnock told CBS News. 

The Georgia senator invited Republicans to discuss alternatives, but noted that Republicans "won't even allow a debate" on the Senate floor about voting rights.

"We're not about to let them off the hook," Warnock added.

But the path forward for voting rights legislation is a difficult one. Republicans are unlikely to support the effort and have labeled previous bills as a "federal takeover" of the elections system.

"There's been a lot of discussion about 'big lies' around here in the last year. I think one of the big lies is that the state legislatures across America are busily at work trying to deny people the right to vote based upon race," McConnell told reporters. 

And there's another factor to consider: Manchin and fellow Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are  reluctant to change the Senate's filibuster rules, which require 60 votes to advance legislation. Tester told reporters after the Thursday call that Manchin still needs to be convinced tochang the Senate's rules, adding that he "is not there yet."

But even if he were to be swayed, Sinema remains unmoved. Her spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday that the Arizona senator continues to support the "60-vote threshold to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans' confidence in our government."

"As Senator Sinema said six months ago, it is time for the Senate to publicly debate its rules, including the filibuster, so senators and all Americans can hear and fully consider such ideas, concerns, and consequences," Sinema's spokesperson added. "If there are proposals to make the Senate work better for everyday Americans without risking repeated radical reversals in federal policy, Senator Sinema is eager to hear such ideas and -- as always -- is willing to engage in good-faith discussions with her colleagues."

Civil rights organizations have increased pressure on Congress and the Biden administration to act. The NAACP says it expects to hold a meeting with the White House "in the coming days". It also met virtually this week with several Senators, including Sinema.

"We just want the Senate to do their job," NAACP President Derrick Johnson told CBS News. 

"How they do their job is not as much a concern as it is getting the job done and that's what we're pursuing."

A coalition of grassroots groups announced a mobilization campaign in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to push for federal voting rights legislation, including the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It will be led by Martin Luther King III and his family with events spanning from Arizona to Washington D.C.

"President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, and now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure," King said. 

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