The year-long Democratic push for federal voting rights legislation died in the Senate on Wednesday night, after Republicans blocked an elections bill for the fifth time in six months and Democrats failed to unite their caucus behind a plan to rewrite the Senate’s rules and pass it anyway.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) then moved to reconsider the legislation to propose a rules change allowing for the bill’s advancement with a simple majority of 51 votes. The Senate rejected that maneuver 52 to 48, with two Democrats, Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), joining all 50 Republicans in opposition.
The late-evening vote amounted to a bitter but unsurprising finale for the Democratic voting rights effort on Capitol Hill, a campaign backed by top party leaders and pushed by key elements of its coalition even as Manchin and Sinema repeatedly made clear they would not weaken the 60-vote rule, defending it as a tool to protect minority-party rights and promote bipartisanship in U.S. democracy.
But Schumer and other top Democrats were determined to push forward with a floor confrontation regardless, even as it promised to expose bitter divisions inside their own party rather than amplify a GOP blockade that they have described as an existential threat to democracy.
In the final hours of debate, Democrats pressed the need for action — including a rare rules change that threatened to upend decades of Senate procedure — in lofty terms couched in the preservation of democracy, while Republicans angrily countered with accusations that the maneuver amounted to nothing more than a partisan power play.
“Shall we see American democracy backslide in our time, grow feeble in the jaws of its adversaries, and ultimately succumb to the cancer of voter suppression?” Schumer said Wednesday. “The answer, in a large sense, could depend on how we move forward this evening.”
Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who faces reelection this year in one of the states subject to new GOP voting laws, compared the vote to late activist and congressman John Lewis’s bloody trip across a Selma, Ala., bridge during a 1965 voting rights march.
“We’re talking about a procedural bridge,” he said. “I’m still praying that we will cross that bridge. But if not tonight, we will come back again and again and again.”
At a news conference earlier in the day, President Biden acknowledged the looming setback but said Democrats were “not out of options” and that the fight over changes to voting laws would continue to the midterm elections and beyond.
“I’ve been engaged in a long time in public policy, and I don’t know many things that have been done in one fell swoop,” he said, adding that he believed voters would turn out in coming elections and force action in Congress. “But it’s going to be difficult. I make no bones about that. It’s going to be difficult,” he said.
Republicans have shown little hesitation in marshaling opposition to the Democratic voting legislation, which combines an effort to restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been struck down in recent years by the Supreme Court with a broader effort to establish new national standards for federal elections, including minimum requirements for early voting, vote by mail and other methods of making it easier to vote.
In final remarks before the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of seeking to “shatter the soul of the Senate for short-term power.”
“When our country needs leaders to fight the fires of factionalism, almost half the Senate over here wants to literally dump more gasoline right on top of our institutions,” he said. “Thanks to the courageous position of at least a few of their members, they will not succeed.”
Democrats contend the legislation is needed to counter changes made in several states by GOP legislatures that they argue will make voting more difficult, particularly in minority communities. Republicans have dismissed the Democratic criticism of these laws as overblown and have described the legislation in Congress as an effort to rig state elections in Democrats’ favor.
In four Senate votes held since June on various voting bills, only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), cast one vote on one bill to proceed with debate. Other Republicans have rallied around a position staked out early last year by McConnell, holding that the federal government should have no additional role in regulating state elections, despite the Constitution’s clear reservation of a federal role in elections for federal office.
In a bid to overcome Republican opposition, Democrats coalesced around a plan this week to modify the Senate’s debate rules only for the pending voting rights legislation. While current rules require 60 senators to vote to close debate and move to a final vote, Schumer proposed enforcing an existing two-speech-maximum rule for each senator. Once debate is fully exhausted under those terms, the Senate could move to a final vote at a simple majority threshold.
But the two holdout Democrats and scores of Republicans warned that there could be no simple exception for the pending bill and that any attempt to exempt legislation from the 60-vote rule would inevitably lead to the permanent end of the Senate filibuster as it currently exists.
Manchin confirmed his intention to oppose the rules change in a floor speech Wednesday afternoon, when he accused fellow Democrats of misrepresenting the history of the filibuster, which has evolved over the Senate’s 232-year history but has generally served to protect the rights of the minority party.
In recent decades, it has become a tool of routine legislative obstruction utilized by both parties, but Manchin argued that did not necessitate fundamentally changing the nature of the Senate along party lines. Any such move, he warned, would only exacerbate poisonous political divisions among Americans.
“I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country, not to divide our country,” he said. “We’re called the United States, not the divided states, and putting politics and party aside is what we’re supposed to do.”
Sinema did not speak on the floor Wednesday, but she made her position clear in a speech last week, delivered just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill to lobby Democrats at a private Senate lunch. She sat at her desk on the Senate floor for much of Wednesday’s debate, listening to speakers of both parties.
Both Democrats’ views have remained firm as numerous other Senate Democrats have changed their views on the filibuster, backing the need for changes after defending the rule earlier in their careers — including during the Trump administration, when Republicans held unified control of the White House and Congress from 2017 to 2019.
The final push for action on voting rights legislation has included a major Atlanta address last week from Biden, a former six-term senator, who threw his support behind changing the filibuster after concluding, he said, that democracy was at critical risk.
On Wednesday, Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (Del.) became the latest Democrats to publicly back a rules change after keeping mum for months on the question. Coons, a Biden confidant, said he backed a “narrow and temporary” filibuster exception aimed at upholding fundamental rights, while Kelly, who faces reelection later this year, said his constituents “deserve a Senate that is more responsive to the challenges facing our country.”
“Protecting the vote-by-mail system used by a majority of Arizonans and getting dark money out of our elections is too important to let fall victim to Washington dysfunction,” Kelly said, outlining a position that notably breaks with Sinema, his fellow Arizona Democrat.
But Manchin and Sinema have resisted a blitz of political pressure from political organizations, civil rights groups and their own colleagues, who have all made the case that the threat to democracy posed by a spate of Republican-passed state voting restrictions outweighs the need to preserve the filibuster.
On Tuesday, for instance, a key fundraising group backing Democratic women who favor abortion rights, Emily’s List, announced it would not support Sinema in a future Democratic primary should she oppose the rules change. The NAACP also made a final appeal to Senate Democrats to support “what may be our last hope to save our democracy.”
In an interview Wednesday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the failed vote “marks a sad day for our democracy” and criticized lawmakers, such as Manchin and Sinema, who said they supported the underlying voting legislation but opposed changing Senate rules to pass it.
“It’s almost like saying that you’re half-pregnant. You are [for passing the bill] or you’re not,” Johnson said, adding that “individuals who relied on the African American vote, in particular, or the Latino vote to be elected to office have turned their backs on the very community that allowed them to be in the Senate.”
Manchin, meanwhile, insisted the Democratic proposal amounted to an attempt to “break the rules to change the rules.”
Manchin said Democrats could opt to keep the voting rights legislation on the Senate floor for days or weeks longer, working to invite amendments and build GOP support that has been elusive over months of back-channel negotiations.
“We’ve wasted a year behind the scenes,” he said. “Talking through each other, around each other, but not to each other. Let’s have the debate.”
The suggestion mystified several of Manchin’s colleagues, who said Republicans have been uninterested in having any kind of debate on voting rights.
While defeat appeared assured, Democrats on Wednesday moved forward with a day-long final debate on the issue. Party leaders encouraged Democratic senators to remain at their desks on the Senate floor through the day as the final vote approached to emphasize the gravity of the issue. While GOP attendance was more sparse, more than a dozen Republican senators delivered floor speeches rebutting the Democrats throughout the day.
There were moments of strong words and pointed emotion, as well as occasional exchanges between members of opposite parties that resembled the sort of bygone, freewheeling debates that many senators say should be a more routine feature of an institution that was once deemed, in seriousness that has evolved into sarcasm, the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”
In one notable speech, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) accused Democrats of peddling a “negative, false narrative of what is happening to America” by referring to the new state laws as “Jim Crow 2.0” and making comparisons to the depravities suffered by Black Americans before and during the civil rights era.
“As I keep hearing the references to Jim Crow, I ask myself how many Americans understand what Jim Crow was,” said Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, calling the comparison “offensive not just to me or Southern Americans, but offensive to millions of Americans who fought, bled and died for the right to vote.”
That drew a response from Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a fellow Black senator, who countered that Democrats were simply dealing with the fact that “it is more difficult for the average African American to vote than the average White American.”
“Don’t lecture me about Jim Crow,” he said later. “I know this is not 1965. That’s what makes me so outraged — it’s 2022 and they’re blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented. I’m not making that up. That is a fact.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.