WASHINGTON — Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights groups argued is vital for protecting democracy was blocked Wednesday by a Republican filibuster, a setback for President Joe Biden and his party after a raw, emotional debate.
The Democrats had the potential to vote on the Senate rules amendment immediately to override the filibuster, and to approve the bill by a simple majority. The rules change also went down as Biden was unable to convince two senators from his party Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia), to modify the Senate procedure for the one bill.
“This is not just another routine day in the Senate, this is a moral moment,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.
Although the initial vote passed 49 to 51, it was short of the 60 required votes to move on over the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) voted against the bill for procedural reasons.
Nighttime voting was the culmination of a day filled with piercing discussion. It also echoed an earlier time when senator filibuster had been used in long speeches by civil rights opponents.
Voting rights activists are concerned that Republican-led state legislatures across the country are making it harder for Black Americans to vote. They are consolidating polling sites, ordering additional changes and requiring specific types of ID.
Kamala Harris, Vice President of Kamala Harris presided and was able to cast an important tiebreaking vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Democrats chose to continue despite the risk of losing at high stakes in a turbulent time for Biden, his party and Democrats. Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling out in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats’ inability to unite around their own goals. But the Democrats wanted to force senators on the record — even their own party’s holdouts — to show voters where they stand.
“I haven’t given up,” Biden said earlier at a White House news conference.
Sinema and Manchin survived criticism from Black civil rights leaders, but they are now at risk of further political fallout. Other groups as well as their peers may try to pull out support.
Learn More Biden Votes to End Filibuster on Voting Rights
Schumer contended the fight is not over and he ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not end up hurting voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 presidential election.
The Democrats’ bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic — and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. The House has approved it.
Sinema, Manchin, and Sinema both say that they support the legislation. However, they do not want to amend Senate rules. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority — Harris can break a tie — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.
Instead, Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this one bill. This would make senators sit at their desks, exhaust all the debate and vote with a simple majority. It is not the existing practice which permits senators to express their opinions privately.
However, even this is likely to go sour because Sinema and Manchin have stated that they will not change the rules for a Democratic party-line vote.
During the debate, emotions were displayed.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, asking Senator McConnell from Kentucky if he’d pause to ask a question about the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell ignored Durbin and left the chamber. McConnell did not respond.
Durbin said he would have asked McConnell, “Does he really believe that there’s no evidence of voter suppression?”
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said at one point, “I am not a racist.”
McConnell, who led his party in doing away with the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees during Donald Trump’s presidency, warned against changing the rules again.
McConnell derided the “fake hysteria” from Democrats over the states’ new voting laws and called the pending bill a federal takeover of election systems. He said doing away with filibuster rules would “break the Senate.”
Learn More The Voting Rights Battle Isn’t Over. It’s Just Moving Out of D.C.
Manchin drew a roomful of senators for his own speech, upstaging the president’s news conference and defending the filibuster. He said majority rule would only “add fuel to the fire” and it was “dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart.”
“For those who say bipartisanship is impossible, we have proven them wrong,” Manchin said, citing the recent infrastructure bill he helped pass into law. “We can do it again. … We can make it easier to vote.”
Several members from the Congressional Black Caucus walked through the Capitol Building to witness the proceedings. “We want this Senate to act today in a favorable way. But if it don’t, we ain’t giving up,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black member of Congress.
Manchin was able to open up the possibility of a more specific package of voter law amendments, such as the Electoral Count Act. It was also tested in the Capitol Insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. According to Manchin, senators of both political parties have been working on it and could attract Republican support.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said a bipartisan coalition should work on legislation to ensure voter access, particularly in far-flung areas like her state, and to shore up Americans’ faith in democracy.
“We don’t need, we do not need a repeat of 2020 when by all accounts our last president, having lost the election, sought to change the results,” said Murkowski.
She said the Senate debate had declined to a troubling state: “You’re either a racist or a hypocrite. Really, really? Is that where we are?”
Biden, who was previously reluctant to alter Senate rules has now increased his pressure on senators. But the push from the White House, including Biden’s blistering speech last week in Atlanta comparing opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late.
One point, Democratic senators were huddled together in the cloakroom in deep conversation with Manchin. Sinema was glued to her smartphone throughout the entire debate.
Farnoush Amiri of the Associated Press and Brian Slodysko were part of this report.