The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate Republicans block debate on elections bill, dealing blow to Democrats’ voting rights push

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)

Senate Republicans banded together Tuesday to block a sweeping Democratic bill that would revamp the architecture of American democracy, dealing a grave blow to efforts to federally override dozens of GOP-passed state voting laws.

The test vote, which would have cleared the way to start debate on voting legislation, failed 50-50 on straight party lines — 10 votes short of the supermajority needed to advance legislation in the Senate.

It came after a succession of Democrats delivered warnings about what they said was the dire state of American democracy, accusing former president Donald Trump of undermining the country’s democratic system by challenging the results of the 2020 election in a campaign that prompted his supporters in numerous state legislatures to pass laws rolling back ballot access.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on June 22 slammed Republicans for blocking debate on the For the People Act. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Are we going to let reactionary state legislatures drag us back into the muck of voter suppression? Are we going to let the most dishonest president in history continue to poison our democracy from the inside?” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the vote. “Or will we stand up to defend what generations of Americans have organized, marched, fought and died for — the sacred, sacred right to vote?”

Activists gear up for battle as Senate Republicans prepare to block voting rights bill

But Republicans stood firmly together in opposition, following the lead of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Tuesday lambasted the Democrats’ bill, known as the For the People Act, as “a transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in [Democrats’] favor” and as “a recipe for undermining confidence in our elections.”

Although many Democrats and liberal activists insist the fight is not over — pledging to launch a final, furious push over the coming weeks to change the Senate’s rules to pass the bill — they face long odds as key lawmakers have insisted that they are not willing to eliminate the chamber’s supermajority rule to override Republican opposition.

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)

The effort to pass the bill has risen to the highest ranks of the Democratic Party. President Biden on Monday privately counseled a key senator, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), to “find a path forward” on voting rights. On Tuesday, Schumer consulted with Biden on next steps after excoriating Republicans ahead of the test vote for their unwillingness even to debate voting rights.

“They will sweep it under the rug and hope that Americans don’t hear about it, but Americans will hear about it,” Schumer said. “We’re going to make sure of that.”

Republicans, however, exhibited little discomfort in their blanket opposition to the Democratic voting bill — which was largely written before the 2020 election and goes well beyond standard provisions for election access to federally dictate rules on campaign financing, government ethics, congressional redistricting and much more. The House passed the bill this year.

What’s in Democrats voting rights legislation

McConnell warned Democrats on Tuesday against any attempt to change the filibuster — the 60-vote supermajority rule — to pass their bill, calling election laws “the worst possible place to push through a power grab at any cost.”

“The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten,” he said. “That’s exactly why this body exists. Today, the Senate is going to fulfill our founding purpose.”

McConnell and other Republicans have taken aim at numerous provisions in the Democratic legislation, including a proposal to publicly finance congressional campaigns, potential new disclosure requirements for political donors and a realignment of the Federal Election Commission meant to break partisan gridlock in enforcing election laws.

And they have maintained solid opposition to the ballot-access provisions in the Democratic bill — such as a guaranteed period of early voting, mandatory availability of no-excuse mail voting, and a broad new automatic voter registration system — by arguing that the federal government has no role in dictating state election laws.

This year, 18 states have enacted more than 30 laws described as “anti-voter” by the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, which tracks developments in state election rules. The restrictions affect roughly 36 million people, or 15 percent of all eligible voters, the group stated in a report last week.

The state laws impose changes including restricting access to mail voting, creating new hurdles to voter registration, establishing new voter ID requirements and expanding the definition of criminal behavior by voters, election officials and third parties.

Democrats have united in opposition to those laws, which were passed after Trump challenged his loss in the 2020 election and rallied his supporters behind an effort to overturn the result — a campaign that also resulted in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But Democrats have splintered on how to go about combating the GOP state laws. Manchin, for instance, did not endorse the For the People Act and sketched out a narrower compromise only this month under pressure from his colleagues and activists. Under his proposal, some of the more debated provisions of the broader bill, such as the public financing system, would be dropped entirely, while others, such as automatic voter registration, would be narrowed. He also proposed adding a traditional GOP election priority, mandating voter identification, in a bid to build bipartisan support.

Manchin’s proposal won plaudits from key Democratic voices, including Georgia activist and former state lawmaker Stacey Abrams and former president Barack Obama, who said Monday that the West Virginian had proposed “some common-sense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with.”

Democrats did win a small victory Tuesday in persuading Manchin to vote to start debate on the voting rights bill, with the understanding that senators would then vote to make his compromise proposal the new baseline for further amendments. Democratic leaders wanted to keep their caucus united in a symbolic show of force against the GOP blockade, and Manchin ultimately obliged.

“These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor,” Manchin said in a statement that also criticized Republicans for blocking the bill anyway.

The senator said he remained “committed to finding a bipartisan pathway forward” but made no statement to indicate whether he was willing to revisit his opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

Democrats grapple with the enemy within: What to do about the filibuster rule that could kill their agenda

But Republicans have rejected Manchin’s proposal as a nonstarter, and the chances of winning GOP support for any meaningful election legislation appears to be remote. Lawmakers across the GOP’s ideological spectrum have found themselves comfortable fighting from the territory that McConnell has staked out: that states, not the federal government, are best equipped to write voting laws.

“I don’t think it is a tough vote,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Monday. “The country’s been well served by elections run by state and local officials who could respond to state and local problems.”

Jason Snead, the executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that has funded ads opposing Democratic election legislation and filed court briefs in favor of GOP state voting laws, said there was scant room for compromise between the parties on federal voting legislation.

“There really is a principle here, and that principle is worth defending, even when we might feel like we’re getting some short term gain out of shirking it,” he said. “There’s lots of reasons if you’re talking about something as complex as elections that you want to keep those decisions as close to the local level, as close to the voters as you can.”

The more consuming debate inside the Democratic ranks has surrounded the filibuster, which for 45 years has allowed a minority of 41 senators to block action in the Senate.

Here’s where GOP lawmakers have passed new voting restrictions around the country

Many Democratic lawmakers and a slew of liberal activists are hoping that Tuesday’s vote sparks a new push to eliminate the rule, allowing legislation to pass with a simple 51-vote majority. While the rule has been eroded in recent years — senators voted to waive it for most nominations by presidents in 2013 and for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 — several Democratic senators have been uneasy with the push to eliminate it entirely.

Among them is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who reiterated her support for the 60-vote threshold in an op-ed published in The Washington Post on Monday. Bipartisan negotiation, with buy-in among Republicans and Democrats, she wrote, is the “best way to achieve durable, lasting results.”

Sinema noted that Democrats used the filibuster as recently as last year in a majority-GOP Senate to block debate on a Republican-written coronavirus relief bill and federal policing overhaul. “Those filibusters were mounted not as attempts to block progress, but to force continued negotiations toward better solutions,” she said.

Some Democrats responded to Sinema with exasperation, questioning the logic of letting a congressional rule — not a constitutional provision or a federal law — stand in the way of a federal response to the GOP voting bills.

“This idea that we’re going to value consistency over democracy, I think, has some real problems,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I commend Senator Sinema for going on the record and putting pen to paper on her beliefs. But … let’s really have an open debate about what it means to keep these rules in place.”

Schumer did not lay out specific next steps after the vote Tuesday but called it “the starting gun, not the finish line” and vowed to “explore every last one of our options.”

“Make no mistake about it — it will not be the last time that voting rights comes up for a debate in the Senate,” he said. “We will not let it go. We will not let it die.”

Although there have been informal discussions among Democrats about potentially breaking the sprawling bill into pieces and forcing discrete votes on the individual elements, that strategy appears no more likely to succeed so long as the filibuster remains in place.

Vice President Harris, who was deputized by Biden last month to lead voting rights efforts, presided over debate of the bill Tuesday afternoon and gaveled the failed vote closed. “The fight is not over,” she told reporters after the vote.

But activists and some Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to make a much more aggressive push for action.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden and Harris already had made significant efforts on voting rights through executive actions and the Justice Department and that they would “continue to use the bully pulpit, but also every lever in government,” to move the issue forward.

“That’s hardly being silent. That’s hardly sitting on the backbench,” Psaki said. “And he will be standing with advocates in this fight for the foreseeable future.”

Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.