The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats are almost out of options on voting rights — and other legislative priorities

Senate Republicans banded together on June 22 to block a voting rights bill, dealing a blow to Democrats' push to override GOP-passed state voting laws. (Video: The Washington Post)

Democrats’ signature voting rights and election reform bill, the For the People Act, was stopped in its tracks in the Senate on Tuesday when Republicans filibustered the bill on a party-line vote.

The bill didn’t even make it to a final up-or-down vote; all 50 GOP senators voted against ending debate on the bill, a procedural step that comes before a final vote. While Democrats didn’t expect any Republicans to vote for it, it’s still a crushing blow to their hopes of responding on a national scale to the dozens of GOP-backed bills at the state level that would restrict voting rights in Republican-controlled states across the country. There’s no legislative path left to pass such a bill — or even the less ambitious bill Democrats already tried to pass in the previous Congress, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

But Democrats did get one shred of good news Tuesday; the last Democratic holdout, the only one not to sponsor the bill, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), did vote to end debate on it, at least giving Democrats the appearance of a united front on what they’ve called the most important issue they face.

Republicans “don’t even want to debate it because they’re afraid,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the vote. “They want to deny the right to vote, make it harder to vote for so many Americans, and they don’t want to talk about it. They want to sweep it under the rug and hope Americans don’t hear about it.”

Manchin changed his mind after being lobbied by fellow Democrats, particularly Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), over the weekend. And it helped that Democrats agreed to add some of the provisions Manchin had suggested in a pared-down bill (perhaps unsurprisingly, while Democrats including former president Barack Obama had praised Manchin’s compromise option, Republicans quickly shot that plan down, too).

Senate Democrats have two options right now to strengthen voting rights: Passing the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, neither is easy. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Republicans say the For the People Act is a partisan power grab, an overreaction to state-level bills and an inappropriate attempt at overruling individual states.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it “a transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in [Democrats’] favor” and “a recipe for undermining confidence in our elections,” which isn’t that different from the complaints Democrats have made about GOP-sponsored bills at the state level. Democrats counter that the bills being passed in GOP-controlled states are a reaction to former president Donald Trump’s continuing string of false claims of election fraud.

Tuesday’s party-line vote also is blow to the prospects of other bipartisan bills in the Senate. Senate Democrats and President Biden are still engaged in negotiations with Republicans over a potential $1 trillion infrastructure bill, largely because Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have publicly pushed back on immediately using the reconciliation process to bypass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and passing a Democrats-only bill. Manchin and Sinema insist that the Senate’s rules are in place to encourage compromise — but that argument seems even more strained after the clear partisan division on voting rights, one in which at least one Republican accused Democrats of peddling “a lie” in claiming that voting rights are under threat.

The For the People Act “is not legislation that could ever form the basis of a reasonable, bipartisan elections reform bill and it is far more likely to sow more distrust in our elections than to ease the partisan divisions in our country,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), often considered a potential swing vote on moderate legislation in the Senate.

Democrats can’t just walk away from an issue they branded as one of the most important on the 2021 docket. It would have stung to not even be able to say every Democrat voted for it. Now, they can show they did everything they could to pass a bill, united as a party, facing a GOP caucus in which not a single Republican was willing to cross the aisle. That offers Democrats a much simpler and more direct argument ahead of the 2022 midterms: that their party was united in trying to expand voting rights, while every Republican opposed them.

And Democrats say they’re not done trying, though it’s not clear what they could do to change things other than overhaul the Senate’s filibuster rules — something Manchin and Sinema have repeatedly and adamantly said they oppose.

“To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act,” Sinema wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week, “I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?”

Some of Sinema’s Democratic colleagues would probably reply that it’s easier to pass legislation than it is to undo it (see the Affordable Care Act and Republicans’ unsuccessful attempts to undo it in Congress and the courts). But Sinema and Manchin remain dug in on the filibuster.

On voting rights, on infrastructure and on their other big legislative priorities — including climate change and immigration — Democrats are pushed up against the limits of their razor-thin Senate majority. Republicans have shown they can and will shut down bills they see as partisan, using the filibuster. And the way things work right now, there just isn’t much else Democrats can do to pass new laws.