© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden tours a neighborhood in Louisville, Colorado, U.S., January 7, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

By Richard Cowan and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday will make a personal plea to U.S. Senate Democrats to unite to change the chamber’s rules to pass voting-rights reform, a day after the Senate’s top Republican launched a blistering attack on the initiative.

Passions are high in Washington as former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of fraud inspire a wave of new restrictions on voting in Republican-controlled states.

Democrats see their voting rights bills as a last chance to counter that wave ahead of the Nov. 8 elections, when they run the risk of losing their narrow majorities in at least one chamber of Congress.

But they remain divided on how to get around the chamber’s “filibuster https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/us-senate-democrats-mull-ending-filibuster-pass-voting-rights-reform-2022-01-11” rule, which requires 60 of the 100 senators to agree on most legislation and has hampered Democrats, who hold just 50 seats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday outlined a strategy to ensure a Senate floor debate on voting rights, after three separate attempts last year were stymied by Republicans.

Under the plan, outlined in a Schumer memo to fellow Democrats that was seen by Reuters, the House of Representatives will soon repackage two elections-related bills into one and pass it. It would then go to the Senate under a special procedure preventing Republicans from blocking debate.

“We will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation – something that Republicans have thus far denied,” Schumer wrote in the memo.

But if Republicans remain united in opposition, even that bill will not pass the Senate unless all Democrats agree to change the filibuster, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday reiterated that Republicans stand firmly against the voting-rights legislation and changes to the filibuster. He blasted a Biden speech calling for action as a “rant” that “was incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office.”

NOT ‘READY FOR PRIME TIME’

Democrats remain divided on what the rules change should be, Senator Jon Tester said on Wednesday.

“I wish we were closer. We’re not to a point where we’re ready for prime time,” Tester told reporters. He expected Democrats would stick to Schumer’s deadline of a vote on the election reforms by the Jan. 17 holiday honoring the slain civil rights hero Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Tester, once a strong supporter of the filibuster, has changed his mind in recent months and taken a lead role in trying to convince fellow centrist Democratic Senator Joe Manchin to support a rule change.

Manchin and fellow centrist Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema object to scrapping the filibuster, warning that doing so could lead to whipsaw policy changes every time the balance of power shifts in Congress.

A White House official said Biden on Thursday will meet with Senate Democrats to strategize on how to pass election reform and change the filibuster.

For at least a decade, worries about atrophy in the Senate have led to calls for revising or scrapping the filibuster, which allows a minority of senators to block bills.

In 2013, Democrats, fed up with then-President Barack Obama’s nominees languishing amid Republican filibusters, scrapped the 60-vote majority needed to confirm most federal judges and administration appointees. Four years later, Republicans ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, clearing the way for Trump to install three conservative justices during his presidency.

Biden had previously opposed changing the filibuster rule but more recently has argued that voting rights reforms were urgently needed even if it meant weakening that procedure.

Since Trump’s defeat, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Critics say these measures target minorities, who vote in greater proportions for Democrats.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act together would make Election Day a holiday, expand access to mail-in voting and strengthen U.S. Justice Department oversight of local election jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.

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