October 20, 2021
(U.S. News & World Report) – An ongoing blockade of voting rights legislation by Senate Republicans leaves Democrats with few options to pass an overhaul of elections and government reforms while they’re still in power, once again casting a spotlight on debate over whether to end the filibuster – at least for this bill.
In a Wednesday procedural vote along party lines, Republicans once again opposed beginning debate on elections reforms renegotiated in part by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in an effort to get some GOP support. Democrats needed all 50 of their senators and at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster and move the bill forward. But no Republicans voted in favor.
Like the previous but more sweeping version of Democrats’ legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act expands vote by mail and early voting, implements automatic and same-day voter registration, prevents name purges from voter rolls, establishes Election Day as a federal holiday, prohibits partisan gerrymandering and adds more campaign finance disclosures.
The legislation also imposes state voter ID requirements to authenticate voters’ identities, a provision many Democrats don’t support but was ultimately included as a form of compromise to increase support for the bill. But like they did in June, Republicans are putting the bill on ice.
Democrats argue elections reforms are long overdue and even more critical given the wave of GOP-controlled state legislatures seeking to enact restrictive voting laws. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York promised an open amendments process if Republicans agreed to proceed to debate in Wednesday’s vote.
“The minority will have the chance to have their voices heard,” Schumer said. “What we can’t accept is a situation where one side is calling for bipartisan debate and bipartisan cooperation while the other refuses to even engage in a dialogue. If our Republican colleagues don’t like our ideas, they have a responsibility to present their own.”
Following the vote, Schumer announced that the Senate will take up the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act as early as next week, which is also unlikely to overcome a potential GOP filibuster. The bill, which passed the Democrat-led House in August, restores criteria in the 1965 landmark law determining which jurisdictions or states must receive preclearance from the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before implementing voting changes. The provisions aim to tamp down voting practices that racially discriminate.
Republicans are vehemently opposed to any election proposals at the federal level, likening them to a “federal takeover scheme.” And they say the current version is no different to what was already proposed by Democrats this year and in previous sessions of Congress.
“For multiple years running, Washington Democrats have offered a rotating merry-go-round of rationales to explain why they need to federalize voting laws and take over all of American elections themselves,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “The latest umpteenth iteration is only a compromise in the sense that the left and the far left argued among themselves about exactly how much power to grab and in which areas.”
Democrats acknowledge they’ll need to find another path to make substantive strides on voting rights legislation since Republicans won’t join them. For many in the party, eliminating the filibuster in the Senate is the only feasible solution.
While it’s not supported by everyone in the party, some Democrats support a carveout to get rid of the stall tactic when it comes to voting and elections reforms. But others like, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, categorically oppose lowering the threshold to advance bills from 60 to 51 votes. To do so, Democrats would need uniform support from their caucus.
President Joe Biden, a veteran of the Senate, also opposes changing the filibuster, though the decision is ultimately up to the upper chamber. But when asked about Biden’s meeting with Democratic senators on voting rights and a filibuster carveout, White House press secretary Jen Psaki wouldn’t bite, saying the president was focused on Wednesday’s vote and his overall, but vague, commitment to strengthening voting rights.
“It’s something that should get support from Republicans and Democrats across the spectrum, and that if Republicans cannot come forward and stop standing in the way, if they can’t support strengthening, protecting the fundamental right to vote, then Democrats are going to have to determine an alternative path forward,” Psaki said at Tuesday’s press briefing.
In his own statement Wednesday, Biden reaffirmed his commitment with a nod to the action in the Senate: “Let there be a debate and let there be a vote.” But he notably made no mention of the filibuster – or any other possible paths forward.
Voting rights advocates contend that the filibuster should not stand in the way of this issue area and are applying more pressure on reluctant senators – and the president – to get behind such a reform. But as of now, the same political dynamics stand in the way of amending Senate procedures.
“If the Senate does not pass the Freedom to Vote Act quickly, it will be too late to counter these attacks on our democracy and a decade of partisan gerrymandering takes hold,” Adam Bozzi, vice president of communications for End Citizens United, wrote in a memo. “Senate Democrats must do whatever it takes, including reforming the filibuster, to pass this bill.”