The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP shows Manchin and Sinema that saving democracy is a partisan issue

From left: Republican Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) address reporters at the Capitol before Tuesday's vote over opening debate on the For the People Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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During the 117th Congress, election and voting rights reforms have been declared dead again, and again, and again. Of course, the health-care reforms we now call Obamacare were also the subject of many premature obituaries. At every point when the death blow was supposed to be struck, the Affordable Care Act won a reprieve.

That’s what happened Tuesday with the For the People Act. Yes, the Senate vote on whether to move the reform bill forward was a defeat, though an expected one. Because of a solid wall of Republican opposition, the motion to open debate won 50 Democratic votes but not the 60 required under the Senate’s anti-democratic filibuster rules.

But what mattered is that Democrats stuck together in insisting that their party would not sit by as access to the ballot box is impeded in more than a dozen states with measures aimed especially at Black and Latino voters as well as young people.

In the end, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the only Democrat to withhold sponsorship of the For the People Act, cast his lot with the rest of his party to push ahead.

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If Democratic unity is no guarantee of victory, without it the cause was lost. Mustering the whole party kept hope alive.

And now will come a wave of organization and political action across the nation around voting issues not seen since the civil rights years. These efforts will be accompanied by hearings outside Washington organized by Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to show how dreadful the Republican stop-the-other-side-from-voting laws are.

This is the biggest test so far for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, and Tuesday may go down as his most eloquent hour. The New York Democrat spoke with passion and urgency about “the sacred, sacred right to vote” that “generations of Americans have organized, marched, fought and died for.”

When the procedural vote failed, Schumer accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of using “the language and the logic” that Southern segregationists invoked more than a half-century ago. Like them, Schumer said, McConnell cited “states’ rights” to deny what the 15th Amendment makes clear: that Congress has the power to prevent discrimination in voting rights.

“This vote was the starting gun, not the finish line,” Schumer promised after Republicans stopped the debate before it even started. “We will not let it go. We will not let it die. This voter suppression cannot stand.”

So what is the way forward? Both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will have to come up with a new understanding of what their pledges to save the filibuster mean. They’re not being asked to abandon the filibuster altogether. They are being called upon to accept that if the current rule is left unchanged, partisan majorities in Republican states will be able to make it harder to vote while Democrats in Washington render themselves powerless to do anything about it.

Manchin got an object lesson in the futility of seeking GOP votes when Schumer invited him to slim down the For the People Act. Manchin proposed jettisoning many parts of the bill that Republicans don’t like and even endorsed voter-ID requirements, which Republicans have championed.

McConnell’s response to Manchin’s efforts? He said the compromise bill had a “rotten core.” How many GOP slaps in the face will Manchin accept?

Sinema weighed in Monday with a Post op-ed defending the filibuster on the grounds that it “compels moderation” and prevents “wild swings between opposing policy polls.”

Really? Where was the moderation in Tuesday’s Republican rejectionist front? And if you don’t like “wild swings” in policy, shouldn’t you want to undo the GOP’s, well, wild dismantling of democracy at the state level?

There are many ways to reform the filibuster without getting rid of it, including one proposed a decade ago by … Joe Manchin. Both Norm Ornstein, the congressional scholar, and former senator Tom Harkin have suggested approaches that would place a heavier burden on the minority trying to block action.

Or Manchin and Sinema could agree to make an exception from the existing filibuster for bills that enforce constitutionally guaranteed rights or govern federal elections.

And if both accept that only Democratic votes can protect voting rights, the party should try to enact the strongest reform bill it can, including provisions to promote small-dollar financing of House elections. Memo to Democrats: Curbing the power of big money in politics is very popular.

There was a time when Republicans were willing to support political reform and voting rights. But that party doesn’t exist anymore. Manchin and Sinema have to accept the evidence that McConnell and 49 of his colleagues laid before them on Tuesday — and act accordingly.

Read more:

Tom Harkin: Here’s another option for filibuster reform that could achieve compromise

Kyrsten Sinema: We have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster

Katie Hobbs: I’m leading the fight for voting rights in Arizona. We need the Senate to step up, now.

Joe Manchin: I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster

Chris DeRose: Arizona is still fighting about the 2020 election. No good can come of it.

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