In today’s Senate, only one Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted to permit consideration of a renewed voting rights act, and none — not even Murkowski — voted to take up the Freedom to Vote Act, designed to create federal voting standards that would undo voter suppression and election subversion efforts being enacted in many GOP-led states.
Thus this crisis point that has brought Biden, the proud “institutionalist,” at long last to offer an unequivocal endorsement of changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to allow the democracy bills to pass with only Democratic votes.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) struck a blow of his own against Republican obstruction on Wednesday by announcing plans to use an often-overlooked rule that will allow the Senate to open debate on voting rights without a supermajority. Closing debate would, absent reform of the filibuster, still require 10 Republican votes.
In the coming days, let’s not hear talk of Biden and his party trying to “muscle through” democracy bills along partisan lines. As Biden made clear, they have to use their muscle only because Republicans have abandoned what was, for more than four decades, a cross-party commitment to national standards to guarantee the right to vote. Democrats have no choice but to do it alone.
“State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities,” Biden said. “If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.”
This has been obvious since early last year, which made another of Biden’s lines unintentionally revealing.
“I’m tired of being quiet!” he said — to laughter and applause — of his earlier reticence in the voting rights battle.
Many of his allies were tired of his restraint too. Their frustration led some voting rights leaders to boycott his Atlanta speech. Biden should have engaged far earlier and more robustly. As it was, the New York Times reported in July, administration aides aroused the fury of many Biden allies when they claimed that it was possible to “out-organize voter suppression.”
At the time, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, shot back: “We cannot litigate our way out of this and we cannot organize our way out of this.”
And Biden’s message to Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) was unmistakable. Both have defended the filibuster as a way of promoting bipartisan accord. This is, to be charitable, a questionable reading of the filibuster’s history. At this moment, protecting the filibuster from any change is the same as supporting the sabotage of democracy that’s happening in GOP-led states.
This really is the “yes or no” question Biden framed. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” he asked on Tuesday. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
This was, as Biden likes to say, not hyperbole. Vice President Harris was right to point out in Atlanta that odious practices come to be seen as “normal” if they are allowed to stand. Jim Crow seemed “normal” for a long time.
The test of the president’s persuasive powers will be whether his intervention bolsters the efforts of moderate Democratic senators — including Tim Kaine of Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats — to persuade Manchin and Sinema that propping up the filibuster in its current form misreads the historical circumstance.
By moving the democracy bills to the Senate floor, Schumer dramatizes the stakes for the two holdouts. It’s one thing to talk about rules in the abstract. It’s quite another to kill a bill guaranteeing the right to vote.
Biden is all-in now, and the president plans to attend Thursday’s Senate Democratic Caucus lunch to make his case personally.
The old Senate warhorse will tell his former colleagues that so much of what he once believed about Republicans, about his beloved Senate and about its traditions no longer meets the moment. Democracy matters more.