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U.S. Senate blocks change in the filibuster for voting rights bills

Voters fill out their ballots at Whittier Elementary in Boise on November 2, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
Voters fill out their ballots at Whittier Elementary in Boise on November 2, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Schumer said that while he expected the vote to fail, he wanted senators to be on the record on whether to change the rules

WASHINGTON — Every Republican in the U.S. Senate and two Democrats on Wednesday night rejected a proposed change in the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, dealing a major blow to attempts in Congress to counter restrictive voting laws passed in the states.

In a 48-52 vote, two Democrats — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — voted against weakening the Senate’s 60-vote threshold specifically to advance two voting rights bills, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

In a sign of the importance of the moment and the issue, senators voted while seated at their desks, after they spent most of Wednesday debating the special carve out for the filibuster on voting rights legislation. Applause was heard at the conclusion of the vote.

Democrats said the proposed rule change was carefully crafted and tailored for a one-time use, and necessary because of united GOP opposition to the two massive voting bills, which would set federal standards for voting access.

“History is watching us,” said Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who invoked the civil rights movement and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Our children are counting on us. And I hope that we will have the courage to do what is right for our communities and for our country.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that while he expected the vote to fail, he wanted senators to be on the record on whether to change the rules of the Senate to allow a simple majority to pass the voting rights measures.

“How will the members of this body expand and protect the most basic right, the right to vote, from forces right now in the 21st century conspiring to take it away?” the New York Democrat said. “And win, lose or draw, we are going to vote. We are going to vote — especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of our democracy, as voting rights does.”

Earlier, in a separate vote, Republican senators on a party-line vote also opposed advancing voting rights legislation to a debate.

Sinema had said she opposed changing the filibuster rules because she felt it would only add to political polarization and that the Senate needed to work to pass any legislation on a bipartisan level. She has said she does support voting rights legislation.

Manchin made similar arguments about the filibuster on the floor Wednesday.

Manchin pointed to the bipartisan infrastructure bill that both parties were able to send to the president’s desk, after much negotiation.

“We can do it again, we truly can,” he said. “We can make it easier to vote.”

Manchin was tasked with gaining the support of 10 Republicans for the Freedom to Vote Act, but has not been able to pick up any GOP support. And only one Republican senator has spoken in support of the John Lewis Act, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Republicans slam ‘fake hysteria’

Republicans criticized Democrats for trying to pass federal legislation that they said would meddle in state elections, and for creating what they characterized as a false narrative of states passing restrictive voting rights legislation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Democrats were creating “fake hysteria over state voting laws” and called the filibuster change “a plot to break the Senate” and “radicalism” that would change America permanently.

“This party-line push has never been about securing citizens’ rights. It’s about expanding politicians’ power,” he said.

President Joe Biden at a Wednesday press conference also again voiced his support for the voting rights bills.

Biden recently delivered remarks on the bills in Georgia, which has become ground zero for voting rights after state lawmakers there passed new voting laws. Biden won the state in 2020 and Georgia also elected two Democratic senators — giving Democrats 50 votes in the evenly divided Senate.

Biden said critics of his speech in Georgia misinterpreted his remarks, in which he drew parallels between the current voting rights push and historical figures during the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

“I did not say that they were going to be George Wallace or Bull Connor. I said we’re gonna have a decision in history,” Biden said. “I think Mitch (McConnell) did a real good job making it sound like I was attacking them. You notice I haven’t attacked anybody publicly.”

Biden said that he hasn’t given up on voting rights and that it’s important to continue educating the public about what’s at stake.

Many Republicans took issue with the filibuster being compared to a relic of the Jim Crow era, or being called racist by not supporting a special carve out for voting rights.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said that Democrats are trying to paint the Republican party “as anti-voter.”

In an emotional speech, Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and one of three Black senators, said there was clear evidence that areas with high concentrations of Black and Brown voters were being targeted by states.

“Don’t lecture me about Jim Crow,” he said. “I know this isn’t 1965. That’s what makes me feel outrage. It’s 2022, and they’re blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Tennessee Republican, said that the new voting requirements that states were moving to pass were “common sense state voter ID laws.”

Tennessee has low voter turnout and strict voter ID requirements that advocates say disenfranchise college students, senior voters and poor voters.

Hagerty said that ending the filibuster, which is not what Democrats proposed, would “be the end of the Senate.”

“There’s no institution that they won’t destroy,” he said.

Wave of state voting laws

The votes followed attempts by congressional Democrats to pass voting rights legislation to counter the wave of restrictive voting laws that Republican-controlled states have passed.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that from Jan. 1 to Dec. 7 of 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting voting access.

Senate Republicans have blocked debate on voting rights several times by use of the filibuster.

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said that the filibuster rules have made senators lazy, by allowing them to block bills without defending their decisions.

He voiced his support for a “talking filibuster,” which would require lawmakers who object to legislation to be physically present in the Senate to debate their objection.

“I don’t think we should be afraid about adjusting the filibuster to make the United States Senate work,” he said. “Not blowing it up, but making some adjustments to make it work.”

Tester said that in Montana, the state legislature passed a bill that does not allow students to use their student IDs to vote. Several student groups are suing, calling the bill a “cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young.”

“What kind of message are you sending to young people?” he said. “You’re saying your voice doesn’t count.”

Several states with Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have vetoed bills passed by Republican controlled state legislatures that aimed to limit the number of drop boxes for voting, introduce strict voter ID and curb mail-in voting.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, has worked previously with Democrats on bipartisan legislation, but charged Democrats with trying to “take over” state elections.

“There was no effort to make this bipartisan,” he said. “Now we’re going to break this 200-year-old filibuster that requires us to come together to find common ground and gives us bills that are stronger because of it.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, told lawmakers that the filibuster has gone through dozens of changes, made by both parties.

He said that with a simple majority vote, in 2017 McConnell modified the rules to allow for the confirmation of former President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Democrats have also used reconciliation to pass some of Biden’s agenda with a simple majority, as well as raising the debt ceiling in late 2021 without the 60-vote threshold, due to a one-time exception in the filibuster rule.

The John Lewis bill, named in honor of the Georgia lawmaker and civil rights icon, would bolster the Voting Rights Act by establishing a new formula to require all 50 states to get special permission from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting laws or putting in place new voting requirements.

The Freedom to Vote Act would require states to expand voter registration, expand access to mail-in voting, and limit the purging of voter rolls, while also making Election Day a federal holiday.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.