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Voting rights protections seem destined to fail as Biden hits 1st year in office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Washington, where President Biden is marking his first year in office, at the same time that Congress is hitting a wall with his agenda, Biden held a rare formal press conference this afternoon at the White House. He acknowledged setbacks he's facing with his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate and hinted at some growing pains since he took office.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The public doesn't want me to be the president senator. They want me to be the president and let senators be senators. And so if I've made - I've made many mistakes, I'm sure. If I made a mistake, I'm used to negotiating to get things done. And I've been, in the past, relatively successful at it in the United States Senate, even as vice president. And I think that role as president is a different role.

KELLY: Democrats are at this hour trying to approve voting rights legislation over Republican opposition. And even as the president was speaking, a member of his own party was on the floor of the Senate, blocking progress on that piece of his agenda.

Let's bring in NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. She was listening along to the president's press conference and also trying to keep an ear on what's happening on Capitol Hill. I hope you're holding up. Hey there, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: (Laughter) Of course.

KELLY: Let's start with the news because the president made some, specifically on his Build Back Better - the big social spending and climate legislation package that has been stuck. Get us up to speed.

SNELL: Well, he admitted that the bill is stuck, as you said, and that he believes Democrats will need to break it up to pass what they can now and try to come back and do the rest later. You know, he specifically mentioned universal pre-K and climate change as things he thinks can get done.

But he does not think that the child tax credit can be part of a scaled-down effort. You know, that's really significant because Democrats unified around that element. It was a huge part of how they sold the legislation to the public. It's also a provision that kept millions of kids out of poverty. Leaving that out gives Democrats a lot less to hold on to, particularly progressives who already feel the climate change provisions may not go far enough. And they worry that the pre-K program is a temporary expansion rather than a long-term program.

You know, Biden talked about the limits of narrow majorities, which have been very clear throughout his presidency. But this is the first very public signal that he is backing away from what he promised, both to voters and to his party.

KELLY: Speaking of Democrats unifying or not unifying, Democrats in the Senate have been focused on Biden's other big call - addressing voting rights, changes to the filibuster. They have not been able to meet the president's demands on either of those. What's happening inside the Democratic Party?

SNELL: You know, watching the press conference and the Senate floor on split screen was kind of like watching two different realities. Biden was saying he didn't overpromise, but as he spoke, Joe Manchin of West Virginia was on the Senate floor, saying that another bill that Biden had personally endorsed won't be moving forward thanks to opposition within his own party. Manchin was saying he wouldn't support changing the filibuster to get voting rights done, and that is certain to enrage already disappointed voters.

You know, activists and people in the Democratic base have been calling for a confrontation about the filibuster for months. And, you know, some Democrats felt they needed to prove that Manchin can't be moved with sheer force. But none of that answers what will move them and what will help Biden get his agenda done.

KELLY: Meanwhile, let me try to pin something down. Republicans are blocking these voting rights bills, which target voting restrictions in Republican-led states. Does that mean, Kelsey, that Republicans are lining up uniformly opposed to doing anything in the name of protecting voting rights?

SNELL: No, they are opposed to these specific bills, and some Republicans are on board with other things. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in particular gave a lengthy speech today about why she's opposed to these bills but favor some action on voting rights. Here's how she framed it.

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LISA MURKOWSKI: Solutions to these difficult problems come best when we are able to be working together. And I know that we are very fractured in this body, and it is made it hard, but hard does not mean it is impossible.

SNELL: She says there's bipartisan support for some things like transparency around changes to state voting rules, but she doesn't support other elements of these bills, like expanded mail-in voting for instance.

KELLY: Okey-dokey. Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.