Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., left, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, head to a Democratic policy meeting, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Maine Sen. Angus King and colleagues faced off in an emotional debate Wednesday on voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital for protecting democracy but is certain to be defeated without a filibuster rules change.

It is a setback for President Joe Biden, who has been unable to persuade two holdout Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to change Senate rules so the party can overpower a Republican filibuster that is blocking the voting bill. Those two senators have withstood criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations.

The debate came as Democrats and advocates nationwide warn that Republican-led states are passing laws making it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.

Maine’s two senators, King, who caucuses with Democrats, and Republican Susan Collins, are split on the issue. Both have indicated support for narrower changes, including to the 1887 law forcing Congress to certify presidential election results was tested during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, that could win bipartisan support after Democrats’ package dies.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, vowed the fight is not over and ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not hurt voter access and turnout.

“We are going to keep fighting long after today,” Schumer said on Wednesday.

Democrats decided to push ahead at a tumultuous time for the president and his party. Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling out in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats’ inability to unite around their own goals.

The bill combines earlier bills into one package that would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.

Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the package, which has passed the House, but they are unwilling to change the Senate rules to pass it over Republican objections. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have the slimmest Senate majority — Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.

Schumer announced the Senate will vote on a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this bill, requiring senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who led his party in doing away with the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees during Donald Trump’s presidency, warned off changing the rules again. He derided “fake hysteria” from Democrats over the states’ new voting laws and called the bill a sprawling federal takeover of elections. He said doing away with filibuster rules would “break the Senate.”

Emotions were on display as the debate began. The No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said flatly at one point: “I am not a racist.”

King has long been wary of eliminating the filibuster and  signed a 2017 letter urging leaders to preserve it for legislation. But he has said Republican voting changes are more important, citing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and placing his upcoming votes on the issue among the most important he has cast in the chamber.

“I don’t have any apologies to make,” King said in a Wednesday floor speech. “If I have to choose between a Senate rule as it works now … and democracy itself, I’m going to take democracy every single time.”

Collins, who led that letter and is spearheading a bipartisan group examining a limited consensus deal on electoral counts, focused her attention on retaining the filibuster in a floor speech last week.

“It is the culture in which legislative goals are reached with patience, persuasion and perseverance, not raw power,” she said.

Just as Manchin and Sinema blocked Biden’s broad “Build Back Better” domestic spending package, the two senators are now dashing hopes for another major part of Biden’s presidential agenda. They are infuriating many of their colleagues and facing a barrage of criticism, particularly from civil rights leaders.

Once reluctant himself to change Senate rules, Biden has stepped up his pressure on senators to do just that. But the push from the White House, including Biden’s blistering speech last week in Atlanta comparing opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late.

Story by Lisa Mascaro. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko and Darlene Superville and Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.