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Senate Republicans block debate on a third major voting rights bill

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) walks to the Senate floor on Nov. 2 in Washington. She was the only Republican to vote Wednesday to begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Republican senators on Wednesday voted to block debate on the third major voting rights bill that congressional Democrats have sought to pass this year in response to the state-level GOP push to restrict ballot access following former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

Wednesday’s vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named after the civil rights icon and former congressman who died last year — fell short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed, 51-49. Only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted to advance it.

After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused the Senate GOP of “implicitly endorsing these partisan Republican actions to suppress the vote and unravel our democracy” and pivoted to attacking the filibuster, the 60-vote supermajority rule that allowed the minority to prevail.

Pressure mounts for Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation amid a Supreme Court voting rights ruling and Texas Democrats' arrival in D.C. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

“Anyone who has been here for more than a few years knows, the gears of Senate have ossified,” he said. “We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward, even if it means going at it alone, to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens.”

The two prior bills put forth by congressional Democrats sought to impose a broad variety of new federal mandates for how states conduct elections, setting minimum standards for early voting and vote-by-mail, forbidding partisan congressional redistricting and overhauling campaign finance disclosures. Both bills failed to advance on straight party lines, with Republicans insisting that the federal government had no role setting state election practices.

All eyes on Manchin after Republicans again block voting rights legislation

The John Lewis bill instead seeks to empower the Justice Department and federal courts to review state election laws — in some cases, before they take effect — restoring provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that have been struck down by the Supreme Court in a series of decisions since 2013.

While Republicans have supported prior reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act, most recently in 2006, that support has all but evaporated since the 2013 Shelby County decision. That ruling effectively ended the practice of “preclearance,” giving federal prosecutors and judges the right to review and preemptively block discriminatory voting laws in certain covered jurisdictions with a history of racial prejudice. Another ruling earlier this year took aim at a separate part of the 1965 law, making it more difficult for the federal government to challenge state and local voting laws for possible discrimination after they are enacted.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that the bill would allow federal prosecutors to “dictate” state voting procedures, and he accused Democrats of “trying to overturn the courts” with the revised legislation.

“There is nothing to suggest a sprawling federal takeover is necessary,” he said. “Nationalizing our elections is just a multi-decade Democratic Party goal in constant search of a justification. Their rationales may change constantly, but their end goal never does.”

But unlike the other Democratic voting bills this year, the John Lewis act attracted Republican support — albeit from a single lawmaker. Murkowski, in a statement, called voting rights “fundamental to our democracy” and said the bill “provides a framework through which legitimate voting rights issues can be tackled.”

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“Every American deserves equal opportunity to participate in our electoral system and political process, and this bill provides a starting point as we seek broader bipartisan consensus on how best to ensure that,” she added.

No other Republicans have appeared even close to following Murkowski in support, and Democrats on Wednesday said the vote showed that there is no possible compromise to be had with the GOP on the subject of voting rights. That is expected to fuel a continued push to change the Senate rules in some way to eliminate the filibuster to allow legislation to pass.

Among those criticizing the vote Wednesday was NAACP President and Chief Executive Derrick Johnson, who said the Republicans who opposed the bill “have failed not only to honor the late, great John Lewis, but all American people.”

“We are at war for our civil rights, yet a privileged few with competing interests continue to dismantle our democracy,” he said. “The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated. We are watching.”

But it remains unclear whether Democrats have a path to eliminating, or even modifying, the filibuster.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has publicly opposed rules changes but also spent months trying to build GOP support for voting rights legislation, gave no indication Wednesday that his thinking has evolved. He told reporters that he still believed a bipartisan voting rights bill was possible, despite the firm signal from GOP senators that it is not.

“We have a good piece of legislation,” he said. “We’d love to have our Republican friends work with us. We’ve got Lisa Murkowski; we just need nine more.”

Asked how he expected to find those nine Republicans, Manchin did not set out a firm path. “We need other people to be talking to each other and find the pathway forward,” he said. “Just can’t be one or two people talking to both sides.”

In a CNN town hall last week, President Biden indicated that, while voting rights is a priority for him and his administration, he was reluctant to push for the elimination of the filibuster while his economic agenda remained unfinished.

“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.

Biden went on to advocate for at least partial reform of the filibuster, forcing objecting senators to hold the floor to block debate.

On Wednesday, Biden called on the Senate to act. “Let there be a debate and let there be a vote. . . . The soul of America is at stake,” he said in a statement.

Schumer, meanwhile, convened a meeting before the vote Wednesday with several centrists — Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — to discuss next steps on the voting rights issue and ways to begin what many Democrats are calling a “family discussion” about which rules changes could be advanced.

The discussions, according to a Democrat familiar with the meeting but not authorized to comment on it publicly, did not include Manchin or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), another Democrat who has publicly opposed rules changes. But they are intended to begin the process of convincing them that such changes are necessary.