The Senate left Washington for a month-long summer recess early Wednesday morning without showing new progress on voting rights legislation, a top-priority agenda item for Democratic leaders and a slew of liberal advocates amid a national effort to pare back voting access in GOP-controlled state legislatures.
“Let there be no mistake about what is going on here,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after a brief 4 a.m. debate. “We have reached a point in this chamber where Republicans appear to oppose any measure — any measure, no matter how common sense — to protect voting rights and strengthen our democracy.”
But the path to enactment of federal voting standards appears no clearer now than it did in June, when Republican senators blocked consideration of sweeping elections, ethics and campaign finance legislation known as the For the People Act.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the legislation a “ridiculous, go-nowhere bill” written to advantage Democrats over Republicans. Democrats, he said, should expect no different result in the future.
“This isn’t going to work,” McConnell said. “It isn’t going to work tonight. And it isn’t going to work when we get back.”
The symbolic effort to show continued action on voting rights came after a marathon voting session that began Tuesday morning with passage of a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and continued with dozens of votes on budget legislation that continued for more than 14 hours.
While an exhausted corps of lawmakers was eager to leave Washington after a weeks-long infrastructure and budget slog, Schumer and other Democratic leaders acted in the predawn hours under sharp demands from activists, elected officials and voters in states where Republican legislators have passed new voting restrictions.
Senators voted on party lines, 50 to 49, to discharge a voting bill from committee, and after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) objected to its immediate consideration, Schumer began the process of scheduling it for a procedural vote during the week of Sept. 13.
In the meantime, advocates hold little hope of convincing Republicans to join Democrats in passing voting legislation, but they do hope to convince a handful of Democratic holdouts who have been resisting calls to revise or eliminate the filibuster — the 60-voter supermajority rule that allows a united minority to block most legislation.
After the June vote on the For the People Act, a catchall bill that included dozens of provisions ranging from a public financing system for congressional campaigns to state voting machine standards, Schumer vowed the vote would be “not the end but the beginning” of the voting rights fight. Several Democratic senators met in recent weeks to revise the bill to solidify support for it by incorporating changes proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).
The revised bill, however, had yet to be publicly released by the time senators wrapped up the budget debate Wednesday morning, and Schumer could only promise to move to the still-to-be-written compromise next month.
Schumer also sought Wednesday to bring two additional voting-related bills to the Senate floor — a measure that would require greater transparency from “dark money” groups that engage in political advocacy but do not have to reveal their donors, and a bill that would outlaw partisan redistricting by mandating that states engage a nonpartisan commission to draw congressional lines. Conducting votes on those bills would have required unanimous consent from all 100 senators, and Cruz objected to both.
Voting rights advocates are now counting on pressure to mount on the senators who have defended the filibuster — most prominently, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — now that Republicans have blocked narrower legislation.
“This arcane Senate rule that’s been changed dozens and dozens of times should not stand in the way of protecting our democracy,” Tiffany Muller, executive director of the liberal advocacy group End Citizens United, said in a recent interview. “If the filibuster can be changed for things like the budget or trade deals or corporate tax cuts, then surely it can be changed to protect the right to vote.”
Budget legislation and trade agreements are subject to expedited Senate procedures that have been written into federal law. The Senate has voted previously to reduce the filibuster threshold to its present level of 60 votes and modify its application; some advocates are now proposing a “carve-out” that would create a specific exception for voting rights legislation.
In an interview Tuesday, McConnell rejected the notion of a filibuster carve-out and said Republicans would continue to fiercely oppose any attempt to dictate national voting standards.
“We don’t think there’s any rationale for the federal government taking over how we vote in this country,” he said.
The filibuster, McConnell added, is “not broken” and “doesn’t need fixing.” And he doubted whether there was unified Democratic support for such a move: “I haven’t heard Joe or Kyrsten, either one, say there ought to be exceptions,” he said.
Meanwhile, advocates are applying pressure not only to senators, but to President Biden and Vice President Harris, who they believe could mount a more aggressive campaign to push senators for filibuster changes.
“The White House must now prioritize voting rights legislation with the same level of urgency and commitment as the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. “Time is running out. The infrastructure of our own democracy, the heart and soul of America, is crumbling before our very eyes.”
But there is no sign that any of the holdouts are willing to budge — particularly after a gang of Republican and Democratic lawmakers struck a trillion-dollar infrastructure deal, which many touted as proof that bipartisanship is still possible on thorny issues.
Manchin said in a CNN interview earlier this month that a filibuster carve-out would only backfire on Democrats, and he made no mention of the filibuster in floor comments Wednesday morning. He reiterated that he opposes the For the People Act and hopes to garner bipartisan support for a narrower bill — one, he said, that could mandate a national voter ID requirement, give state and local officials a free hand to maintain voter rolls, and allow for restrictions on mail-in voting.
“I urge my colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, to allow us to debate this critical issue and come up with a bipartisan solution that protects every American’s right to vote,” he said.
Sinema, meanwhile, defended her pro-filibuster position at length in an interview with ABC’s “The View” last week.
“If you eliminate the filibuster to pass that piece of legislation, then in four years or anytime when the other party gains control, without the filibuster in place, all of those voting rights protections could be easily wiped out with a simple majority vote,” Sinema said. “You could have a nationwide ban on mail-in voting; you could have requirements for voter ID at every level of government, for every election throughout the country. . . . Think a couple years down the road on what it looks like if you remove this tool, this protection for the minority, what happens when you’re the minority and that tool is no longer there to protect your rights.”
The continued impasse has heightened the possibility that the 2022 election cycle will proceed with the new state laws in place — and without any new federal standards backstopping them.
Not only are local election administrators beginning the process of preparing for next year’s primary and general elections, the decennial congressional reapportionment is also about to get underway. The Census Bureau is set to deliver detailed data to state legislatures later this week, allowing them to begin the process of drawing new district boundaries.
That has left Senate Democrats in a delicate position of convincing activists and voters that there is still hope for progress while time ticks away and success appears increasingly remote.
“We are working feverishly on voting rights, and you’re going to see some movement in that direction before we leave,” Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who represents one of the states that changed its voting laws and who is seeking reelection next year, said Tuesday. “As long as it takes, whatever it takes — at the end of the day, we have to pass voting rights.”