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.
Democrats were poised to immediately pivot to voting on a Senate rules change as a way to overcome the filibuster and approve the bill with a simple majority. But the rules change was also headed toward defeat, as Biden has been unable to persuade two holdout senators in his own party, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to change the Senate procedures for this one bill.
“This is not just another routine day in the Senate, this is a moral moment,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.
The initial vote was 49-51, short of the 60 votes needed to advance over the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voted no for procedural reasons so Democrats can revisit the legislation.
The nighttime voting capped a day of piercing debate that carried echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation.
Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws to make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to cast a potentially tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Democrats decided to press ahead despite the potential for defeat at a tumultuous time for Biden and his party. Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling 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 have withstood an onslaught of criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations, and they risk further political fallout as other groups and even their own colleagues threaten to withdraw campaign support.
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. It has passed the House.
Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation but are unwilling to change 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. It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
But even that is expected to fail because Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.