Democrats and Activists Focus on the Filibuster After a Defeat on Voting Rights

For Democrats, the only way to break their voting rights legislation free of Republican opposition is by changing the Senate’s filibuster rules — an institution-shaking step that so far remains out of reach. But while the filibuster is proving hard to kill, it has been wounded.

The unanimous Republican refusal to allow the Senate to open a debate sought by every Democrat on the expansive elections and ethics measure — coupled with the recent filibuster of other legislation with bipartisan support — has armed opponents with fresh evidence of how the tactic can be employed to give the minority veto power over the majority.

Democrats and activists say the increasing Republican reliance on the filibuster will only intensify calls to jettison it and potentially bring about critical mass for a rules change as Democrats remain determined to pass some form of the elections measure and other parts of their agenda opposed by Republicans.

“I think as people see them stopping more things, minds might change,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and one of the chief sponsors of the voting bill, said on Wednesday.

Ms. Klobuchar, who leads the Rules Committee, is planning to conduct a field hearing on voting rights in Georgia to build public support for the legislation, choosing a state where Republican lawmakers have put in place restrictive voting rules after sustaining election losses.

The White House, which has been criticized for not engaging aggressively enough on voting rights, is promising more from President Biden on the issue next week, though Mr. Biden, a senator for 36 years, has not explicitly endorsed eliminating the filibuster.

But to curb the power of the filibuster through a rules change, all 50 Democrats would have to agree to do so on the floor, and so far Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have expressed strong public opposition to doing that. Ms. Sinema’s latest pronouncement came in a Washington Post op-ed published just before this week’s procedural vote, much to the frustration of some of her colleagues. Other Democrats also remain reluctant to make significant changes to the filibuster, though they are much less outspoken than their two colleagues.

As they regroup, Democrats involved in shaping the voting rights measure said the next step was to produce a narrower version incorporating some of the changes sought by Mr. Manchin that their party could then rally around. That willingness to accept elements of Mr. Manchin’s proposal won his support on Tuesday for beginning debate on the legislation, allowing Democrats to present a unified front.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon and a chief author of the elections bill, said Democrats and Mr. Manchin could then try anew to recruit Republicans behind the revised bill — a prospect he acknowledged was unlikely to succeed.

Multiple Republicans have said they cannot see themselves backing any Democratic proposal imposing new voting rules on states. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, has drawn a firm line against cooperating with Democrats and most Republicans will be very reluctant to cross him, counting on Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema to keep their commitment not to alter the filibuster rules requiring 60 votes to proceed on legislation.

“If that fails,” Mr. Merkley said on Wednesday about new outreach to Republicans, “then the 50 of us who want to defend our Constitution, defend the right to vote, stop billionaires from buying elections have to be in a room and figure out how do we get around Mitch McConnell obstructing this.”

transcript

Republicans Filibuster Voting Rights Bill

Senate Republicans used the filibuster on Tuesday to block debate on an ambitious Democratic bill aimed at countering a wave of ballot restrictions in G.O.P.-controlled states.

“The For the People Act is about setting basic national standards to make sure that all voters in this country can vote legally in the way that works for them, regardless of what ZIP code they live in, regardless of if they live in a big city or in a suburb or out in a small town in Western Minnesota. It is about reducing the power of big money in our elections by ending secret spending by billionaires and special interests. And it is about making anti-corruption reforms to ensure politicians work for the people, not for themselves.” “The federal takeover elections shouldn’t happen. I urge my colleagues not to support it happening. The American people don’t want to see the things imposed on our election system that are in this bill. And I urge my colleagues to vote against this harmful legislation.” “On this vote, the yeas are 50, the nays are 50. Three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn not having voted in the affirmative, the motion is not agreed to.” “All we wanted to do here on the floor was to bring up the issue of voting rights and debate how to combat these vicious, oftentimes discriminatory voting restrictions. And today, every single Democratic senator stood together in the fight to protect the right to vote in America. Regrettably, our efforts were met by the unanimous opposition of the Republic — of the Senate minority. Once again, Senate Republicans have signed their names in the ledger of history along Donal — alongside Donald Trump, the big lie and voter suppression, to their enduring disgrace.”

Though he was not specific, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Tuesday after the vote that Democrats “have several serious options for how to reconsider this issue and advance legislation to combat voter suppression.”

“We will leave no stone unturned,” he said on Wednesday. “Voting rights are too important.”

But Mr. Schumer has other items on his to-do list, notably an infrastructure proposal prized by the White House that will consume much, if not all, of July, detracting from efforts to highlight both the voting rights measure and the drive to rein in the filibuster.

Pressed on how they can hope to convert Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema considering how strongly they have registered their opposition, Democrats and antifilibuster activists noted that Mr. Manchin only a few weeks ago had been dead set against the expansive voting rights bill. Democrats appeared to have lost his vote only to see him come forward with his own plan and join them on Tuesday.

The Battle Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

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