On Voting Rights, Biden Prefers to Negotiate. This Time, It Might Not Be Possible.

The president’s long history of deal making on the issue is crashing into the realities of a more sharply partisan time.

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WASHINGTON — As President Biden confronts intense Republican opposition to the broad voting rights bill that Democrats have made a top priority this year, he might remember back to 1982 and an earlier partisan clash over the issue, one of a number across the years that shaped his views on deal making — and its limits.

A key provision of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting states from denying the vote to people on the basis of race, was facing a high-profile Senate debate over its extension. The Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel handling the legislation, was led by Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, but aware of the optics of having a former segregationist as their public face for negotiations, Republicans instead chose Senator Bob Dole of Kansas to lead them in talks about a deal.

Representing the other side was Mr. Biden, then in his second term as a senator from Delaware. Mr. Biden was not as well known as another Democrat on the committee, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, but he did have one advantage: Republicans tended to listen to him.

“He wanted to do the right thing, but he wanted to do it in a way that built consensus,” Sheila Bair, who served as a longtime counsel to Mr. Dole, said in an interview. “Biden recognized that if you want this to be lasting, we needed a big margin.”

In meetings, Mr. Biden and Mr. Dole encouraged Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a Republican who privately wanted to be helpful, according to two former Senate aides from that era. “This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you can be bipartisan,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Grassley at the time, according to one of the aides who recalled the interaction. (A spokesman for Mr. Grassley said he had always been supportive of the Voting Rights Act, and was a key player in the 1982 extension of the law.)

In another meeting, Mr. Biden pointed out to Mr. Thurmond that the tide was turning: “We’re going to win anyhow, Strom.”

The legislation passed, 85 to 8, in June 1982. In the end, Mr. Thurmond was among the Republicans who voted for it.

“The votes that Ted Kennedy was bringing were going to be there no matter what,” Ms. Bair said. “Biden had his own journey on civil rights, and in a weird kind of way, that gave him more credibility with people like Strom Thurmond.”

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President Ronald Reagan spoke with members of the Senate, including Mr. Biden, before signing the bill renewing the Voting Rights Act in 1982.Credit…Barry Thumma/Associated Press

Mr. Biden’s long experience in working across the aisle in the Senate — and his evolution from opponent of school busing to proponent of using the government to address issues of racial equity — taught him crucial lessons about navigating politically combustible civil rights issues.

Yet even with his decades of work on the topic, he faces especially wrenching decisions when it comes to the voting rights legislation. Known as the For the People Act, the bill is the professed No. 1 priority of Democrats this year. It would overhaul the nation’s elections system, rein in campaign donations and limit partisan gerrymandering. But after passing the House, it hit a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate.

With little likelihood of the measure winning enough Republican support to meet the 60-vote threshold necessary for passage, Mr. Biden now faces a choice: Scale back his ambitions for addressing voting rights or abandon hopes of a bipartisan compromise and instead seek to jam it through on a partisan vote in the equally divided chamber by further rolling back one of the foundations of Senate tradition, the filibuster.

Along with his push for a bipartisan compromise on his infrastructure proposal, it is the clearest choice he has faced yet between his instinct to negotiate and confronting the realities of Senate partisanship in 2021.

Mr. Biden always preferred private strategy sessions to showy displays. “He was the one behind the scenes who was making it look easy,” Barbara Boxer, the former Democratic senator from California, said in an interview. “That was his huge contribution.”

But Mr. Biden was also unafraid of openly challenging political adversaries — often on the basis of their past work to curb civil rights or voting access — and he could be effective at bringing moderate Republicans around to his way of thinking.

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A bill to overhaul the nation’s elections system is the professed No. 1 priority of Democrats this year, but it is foundering in the Senate in the face of Republican opposition.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

One of the biggest fights of his career came in 1985, when Mr. Biden, then the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led a bipartisan effort to stop the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds, then the chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan, to become associate attorney general.

In televised hearings, Mr. Biden targeted Mr. Reynolds’s oversight of a redistricting effort in Louisiana that split a majority Black district around New Orleans in two, a move that kept Black voters in the minority. During one hearing, Mr. Biden pointed out that Mr. Reynolds had been aware that an official involved in the redistricting effort had repeatedly used a racial slur.

In a rebuke of the Reagan administration’s track record on civil rights, two Republicans from the Judiciary Committee voted with Democrats to oppose Mr. Reynolds’s nomination.

A year later, Mr. Biden opposed the nomination of Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship in Alabama. Mr. Biden’s objections stemmed, in large part, from comments that were widely criticized as racist, but also from Mr. Sessions’s past prosecution of three Black people who were later acquitted of voting fraud charges. Faced with a split committee vote, the White House later pulled Mr. Sessions’s nomination.

By 1987, Mr. Biden had sharpened his reputation as a moderate who could win over Republicans on the grounds of what one former Senate aide called an ability “to appeal to their better angels” on civil rights matters.

That year, Mr. Biden — then in the midst of his first presidential campaign — led yet another effort to defeat a Reagan-era nominee: Robert H. Bork, whom the president had chosen for the Supreme Court. Alarmed by Mr. Bork’s past criticism of rulings on the rights of African Americans and women, Mr. Biden by that time had a well-honed playbook: He approached moderate Republicans, including Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, who could also help widen the margins on the final vote.

“We already had Bork beat,” Mark Gitenstein, a close friend of Mr. Biden’s and a former Senate aide, told The New York Times in 2019. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”

In the end, six Republicans, including Mr. Warner, who died on Tuesday, joined the effort to scuttle the Bork nomination. It was a vote that solidified Mr. Biden’s reputation as a Democrat who could use bipartisan negotiations — rather than brute-force politics — to achieve his goals.

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Robert H. Bork’s past criticism of rulings on the rights of African Americans and women helped lead Mr. Biden to rally bipartisan support to defeat his Supreme Court nomination.Credit…Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times

“If you look at the things that have animated him over the past 50 years, this is one,” Ted Kaufman, a former senator from Delaware and a close Biden adviser, said in an interview.

The problem, of course, is that very little about the Senate operates the way it did when Mr. Biden served there. Mr. Biden has also changed. As president, he is no longer the quintessential moderate and has instead embraced the most ambitious progressive agenda of any president in generations.

But, his advisers say, he did not ever foresee that voting rights would become such a divisive issue, or that Democrats would be seeking support for an expansive bill that aimed to beat back some 361 bills in 47 states trying to tighten voting rules.

“I don’t think in his wildest dreams he’d ever thought we’d be talking about these issues at this point in our lives,” Mr. Kaufman said. “He fought this before with Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. It was a recurring theme, but not at this level. This feels much more systemic.”

Measures to curb voting rights have elicited some of Mr. Biden’s most aggressive language as president. He recently took aim at a law passed by Republicans in Georgia, which the president called “un-American” and “sick.”

Many Democrats, who have hit a wall in their negotiations to win Republican backing for the For the People Act, are hoping to use G.O.P. opposition as an argument for eliminating a legislative filibuster and allowing the bill to pass with a simple majority. But at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, remains opposed to the idea, potentially scuttling it.

Another option, which Mr. Manchin supports, is for Democrats to focus on a bill with a narrower scope. That bill, named for John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia Democrat who died last year, would restore a piece of the Voting Rights Act that relied on a formula to identify states with a history of discrimination and require that those jurisdictions clear any changes to their voting processes with the federal government. Those protections were stripped away by the Supreme Court in 2013.

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Mr. Biden met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office in April to discuss the voting rights bill.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Faced with such slim odds over the more ambitious piece of legislation, Mr. Biden has privately reminded members of his own party in White House meetings that, with any bill, there are must-haves and like-to-haves.

In a recent meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden urged them to consider the pieces of the bill they could live without.

He stressed to the group that the measure’s chances were low without compromise.

“He was really concerned about navigating through the Senate,” said Representative Brenda Lawrence, Democrat of Michigan. “He said that in a number of situations: ‘We have to get this done.'”

Mr. Biden has yet to say publicly how he intends to proceed. He has avoided getting involved in negotiations over the legislation. But the president has also been reluctant to come out in public support of eliminating the filibuster, especially since Mr. Manchin — a vital vote for nearly all of the president’s priorities — has so far opposed doing so, effectively taking that option off the table for now.

Still, Mr. Biden has signaled a willingness to go further if Republicans do not negotiate.

“If we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” Mr. Biden said in March during his first news conference with reporters.

The president’s advisers say the public should take him at his word.

“It’s usually best to listen to what he says,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Because that’s usually what he thinks.”

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