The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Democrats spent a year on a failed voting rights push

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democratic senators talk to reporters after a meeting on voting rights bill in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

Months before Wednesday’s decisive Senate votes that put a stake in Democrats’ year-long push to pass federal voting rights legislation, two key senators set out firm positions in The Washington Post’s opinion pages.

“I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) wrote in April as the Senate started to take up voting rights.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) was similarly direct in affirming her support of the Senate’s 60-vote requirement as the chamber geared up in June for an initial vote on the issue.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on Jan. 13 said that she would not support changing filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation. (Video: The Washington Post)

“If anyone expected me to reverse my position because my party now controls the Senate, they should know that my approach to legislating in Congress is the same whether in the minority or majority,” she wrote.

Yet Democratic leaders continued their push for action for another six months, only to find out definitively Wednesday night that Manchin and Sinema, in fact, meant exactly what they had said all along.

The effort has amounted to a long journey into a political box canyon — one that has come with considerable costs: Advocacy groups spent tens of millions of dollars seeking to influence senators who could not be budged. Lawmakers and staff spent countless hours writing and refining bills that could not pass Congress. Democratic leaders, including President Biden, expended significant political capital on a futile fight. And there are signs that the whole experience has contributed to disillusionment among the party’s base voters and sharpened intraparty tensions less than a year ahead of midterm elections.

Manchin, Sinema join with GOP in rejecting attempt to change filibuster rules, effectively killing Democratic voting bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke before the Senate ruled on federal voting rights legislation on Jan. 19. (Video: The Washington Post)

So why did Democrats push ahead on a quest that was improbable at best, resulting in a fresh demonstration of impotence by a party and president who vowed to make government work?

According to interviews with more than a dozen key players — including lawmakers, aides and activists — the reasons center on the genuine alarm felt throughout the party at threats posed to American democracy after the 2020 election — particularly by new Republican-passed state laws rolling back voting access. But they also included the internal politics of the Democratic political coalition, the influence of outside groups eager to push the fight forward and a persistent hope against evidence that Manchin and Sinema would ultimately reverse their long-standing positions on the Senate’s rules.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in an interview Thursday said the fight served to unify, not divide, a diverse Democratic coalition that has long seen preserving and expanding voting rights as a uniquely precious keystone of the party’s agenda. Not holding the vote, he said, would have caused “far more disunity” inside the party ranks than losing the support of two senators.

“It’s the core of the Democratic Party,” he said, adding, “this issue is different than any other. I wouldn’t have gotten 48 Democrats to change the rules, I don’t think, on any other issue.”

Democrats said the threats they hoped to address were undeniable: Responding to former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, more than two dozen Republican-controlled state governments moved in 2021 to roll back voting provisions that had made casting a ballot simpler than ever. With more GOP state laws expected to pass this year, the new burdens threaten to land disproportionately on the working poor, minorities, the elderly and other groups that, Democrats fear, vote disproportionately in their favor.

“We feel if they can do these voting rights laws and other voting rights laws, we will never have a majority — that’s the bottom line,” Schumer said. “That’s a genuine feeling.”

Those threats fueled passionate, sometimes apocalyptic, warnings that emphasized the need for unprecedented action. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), a freshman senator who was narrowly elected last year and faces reelection this year in a state that tightened its voting laws, called the situation “Jim Crow 2.0” and a “911 emergency” for American democracy.

“When states behave in this way, we have a moral obligation as the Senate to respond and we have the constitutional right to respond,” he told reporters last week. “This is our moment.”

That rhetoric, however, was ill-matched to political reality, with Senate Democrats holding the narrowest possible majority — 50-50, with Vice President Harris breaking tie votes. Still, none of those interviewed said they ever seriously considered refocusing the push for federal legislation on other targets in light of Manchin and Sinema’s opposition.

“It shouldn’t be two people out of 100 that have that power,” said Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who participated in numerous meetings with senators including Manchin. “We don’t have any regrets that we kept pushing.”

Tiffany Muller, executive director of End Citizens United, a PAC allied with Democrats that raised and spent tens of millions of the effort to pass elections bills, said there were no good alternatives to legislative action. Democrats had been sidelined in states where new voting laws were being passed, and the federal courts had become increasingly hostile to voting rights litigation.

“The one place that we had all the levers of power and could mitigate these attacks was Congress — it absolutely was the place to make the stand,” she said. “Everyone in D.C. is going to armchair quarterback, but this was about making a moral statement about, does every single person in this country get to have a vote and get to have that vote counted?”

Many believed they had seen this play out before: Early in President Barack Obama’s second term, Senate Democrats led by Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) explored ways to sidestep a Republican blockade of Obama’s executive and judicial nominees. Senators were initially wary of unilaterally changing Senate rules using the so-called “nuclear option,” but resistance evaporated after months of lobbying from Reid and allies — and several failed confirmation votes.

Schumer and other Democratic senators thought the voting rights fight could follow a similar trajectory: Faced with persistent GOP opposition, even self-styled Democratic institutionalists like Manchin and Sinema would see no alternative except to change the rules.

There was a key difference in 2013: Reid enjoyed a 55-seat majority, while Schumer has no margin whatsoever for Democratic defections. And in 2013, three Democrats had voted against the rules change — including Manchin.

Schumer and other Democrats did not see Manchin’s April op-ed as a stop sign but instead as an invitation to test his theory of politics. As they moved toward an initial vote on a House-passed voting bill in June, they invited Manchin to revise it to his liking — and win Republican support for it.

Joe Manchin, at the apex of his power, finds few allies in his quest for bipartisanship

Civil rights leaders who met with Manchin said they pressed him on the filibuster as a Jim Crow relic that needed to be discarded to secure fundamental democratic rights for Americans. Instead, they were struck by his faith that he could persuade Republicans to back a bill on the issue.

“He said he thought he could do it,” said Campbell, who participated in numerous meetings with senators, including Manchin.

Meanwhile, Sinema was amping up her own warnings — penning The Post op-ed reaffirming her long-standing support for the existing 60-vote filibuster — while she was also in the thick of another legislative battle, one calibrated around her belief in the power of bipartisanship. That effort — a $1 trillion infrastructure deal — was consummated a month later, and Sinema quickly touted it as proof that Republicans and Democrats could work together in a 60-vote Senate.

“How many times have we heard that bipartisanship isn’t possible anymore? Or that important policy can only happen on a party line?” she said at a White House signing event in November, as Schumer, Biden and other party leaders looked on. “Our legislation proves the opposite.”

But it was becoming clear that there was little bipartisanship to be had on voting rights, particularly on a bill as expansive as the one Democrats sought to pass Wednesday. Not only had Republicans voted consistently to oppose even debating the Democratic bills, efforts to try to forge any sort of compromise were being rebuffed.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) successfully rallied his Republican conference behind a position that was at odds with the plain text of the Constitution but fit the mood of his members — that Congress simply had no role in telling states how to run their elections.

“This party-line push has never been about securing citizens’ rights — it’s about expanding politicians’ power,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Republicans who supported Voting Rights Act now oppose bill Democrats say would strengthen its provisions

Through the fall, Manchin met with several Republican senators, including McConnell, to pitch them on potential cooperation. Other senators with solid bipartisan relationships who had become convinced of the need to drastic action, including Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Angus King (I-Maine), also worked back channels to little avail. Even the Republicans most inclined toward cooperation, such as Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), were interested in a much narrower bill that would steer clear of new federal voting standards.

Kaine said Democrats were “delivered a message about the facts of life” from a GOP senator he declined to name.

“[The senator] just said, ‘Look, we love Mitch McConnell. . . . He lets us do whatever we want. He may not agree with it. He may not vote for it, but he lets us deal with everyone,” Kaine said. “ ‘He has two red lines, voting rights and campaign finance. And he’s told us absolutely plainly you cannot work with Democrats on either of those issues.’ ”

Advocacy groups, meanwhile, pushed Biden over the summer to take a more aggressive stance and make a more concerted push to bring Manchin and Sinema along. But, according to people in touch with the White House and key congressional offices, top Democrats had concluded that the party’s economic agenda — a precarious effort to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a Democrats-only domestic policy bill in tandem — was the priority.

Biden said as much in a CNN town hall in October, explaining that a showdown on the Senate rules would have to wait.

“Here’s the deal — if, in fact, I get myself into at this moment the debate on the filibuster, I lose at least three votes right now to get what I have to get done on the economic side of the equation, on the foreign policy side of the equation,” he said.

At the same time, however, the former six-term senator moved closer to openly endorsing rules changes, saying he believed Democrats would have to “fundamentally alter the filibuster.”

Through the summer and fall, frustration rose on Capitol Hill and among advocates, with many pushing Biden and Harris, whom he had deputized to advance the issue, to launch a more vigorous campaign for action. Other fissures developed, with some wondering whether the initial Democratic bill — a grab bag of proposals almost entirely written before the 2020 election — was ill-suited to respond to the present threats to democracy.

It was only in mid-December, after Manchin expressed fresh reservations about the domestic policy bill, effectively pushing any chance of its passage well into 2022, that Democratic leaders clearly pivoted to the voting rights fight. But by the time debate began last week, many states were only months away from holding their midterm primaries, and even some Democratic elections officials worried about implementing any new federal mandates this year.

Meanwhile, Manchin — the only statewide-elected Democrat in a state that voted for Trump by 39 points — remained largely immune to political pressure even as he quietly discussed potential rules changes with Democratic colleagues. Sinema was even less receptive to the discussion, according to multiple Democrats who attempted to persuade her, pointing in private conversations to her infrastructure triumph, as well as her experiences as a state legislator in Arizona, as proof that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

Joe Manchin gets all the attention. But Kyrsten Sinema could be an even bigger obstacle for Democrats’ spending plans.

In the end, neither senator budged. Manchin said Wednesday that senators “wasted a year behind the scenes, talking through each other, around each other, but not to each other.” Sinema said in a statement that the rules change would “deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy” — echoing her words in the June op-ed.

The fight did pay some dividends for party leaders, though it may take years before they can fully collect. Dozens of Democrats who had been wary of eroding the filibuster — including several facing tough reelection fights, such as Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.), where the filibuster threatens to be a polarizing issue — ultimately backed Schumer.

“If I would have said ‘change the rules’ back in March, I might have had half my caucus. But as people focused on voting rights, it grew and grew and grew,” Schumer said, adding that the battle got voters to engage and, in turn, pressure lawmakers.

“When people feel so much heat, they usually move in a direction to relieve that heat,” he said.

No senators felt more heat than Manchin and Sinema, who have faced fierce political backlash from inside their own party. Advocates said that is likely to deter future Democratic candidates from adopting similar institutionalist views, thus making future action more likely.

The debate over the filibuster “is now a top-of-mind issue in Senate races,” Muller said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a Senate candidate out there who is not going to have to take a position on it, and that is a big change from what it was even last cycle.”

Schumer disputed that Wednesday’s failure came at a political cost. Sidestepping the fight in the Senate, he said, would have disillusioned even more Democratic voters — “particularly our core constituencies,” he said. “They know you don’t succeed in a linear line. They know you fail when you don’t fight.”

When pressed on what the failed vote accomplished, many of those involved in the fight have reached for moral and historical comparisons.

But some said Democrats also had a political obligation — to fight on behalf of the minority voters who had sent Biden and Harris to the White House and handed Democrats their congressional majorities and now faced new hardships at the ballot box.

“They are targeting people and trying to exclude them because those people are assumed to be loyal to us. So are we loyal to them?” said Kaine, who was involved in a months-long attempt to convince the holdout Democrats. “If they’re being punished and hurt because they’re assumed to be loyal to us, like, how can we not have this battle?”