Update 581 — The Fight to Vote, 2022:
Whither the Defense of Democracy?
The one-year anniversary party for the Biden presidency was crashed by last night’s Senate showdown, ending in failed attempts to pass voting rights legislation and to reform the Senate filibuster rule. Indeed, that failure, said to be impossible, dooms more than just the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, but much of the Biden agenda, including the economic recovery policy agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Schumer pushed this fight to the bitter end knowing he was going to lose. Wednesday’s vote cemented Senators Manchin and Sinema as the chief pariahs in the caucus. With nowhere else to turn, Schumer must proceed with caution. He needs a unanimous caucus to change the rules and enable the Biden agenda, but rules reforms that lack efficacy will not produce results needed to stave off a midterm majority meltdown.
Today, we summarize and assess the road ahead in Congress’ struggle to defend democracy and voting rights.
Momentum on Federal Voting Rights
Last week, President Biden spoke passionately in Atlanta on the importance of protecting democracy and passing voting rights legislation. While Biden has spoken in the past in support of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, he left the debate on filibuster reform to the Senate. The President shifted tactics and came out in support of filibuster reform to pass voting rights legislation. He outlined the problems facing our democracy in the states: voter suppression and election subversion. President Biden’s firm stance on these bills and filibuster reform signals the urgency of the issue, but it may not have been enough to overcome opposition to rules reform by two Senate Democrats and opposition to the underlying legislation by the entire Republican caucus.
Voting rights activists have been fighting to pass legislation and defend voting rights for decades. The alarming increase in voter suppression and election subversion bills enacted in states following the 2020 election, designed to give partisan actors the authority to overturn national and local elections. These developments galvanized activists and focused the goal of voting rights protections and minimum standards for federal elections.
Senate Debate Uncloaked
Senate Majority Leader Schumer has continued to highlight the importance of these bills to both parties, underscoring the need for rules reform to bring these bills to the floor and ensure their passage. After failing to even debate voting rights on the Senate floor last year, Leader Schumer used a little known procedure to get the bill to a floor debate. H.R. 5746, originally a NASA bill, had been passed by the House and was sent back with an amendment from the Senate for the House to pass it again. The amendment contains the two voting rights bills (the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act), now combined as the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. This process would allow the Senate to immediately move to debate with a 50-vote threshold, rather than the usual 60-vote threshold on a motion to proceed.
Schumer announced on January 13 that the Senate would begin debate on the House-passed voting rights bill on Tuesday, January 18. He pointed to circumstances around COVID-19 exposure and a winter storm set to hit the East Coast on MLK weekend as reasons to delay past his original MLK Day deadline. He vowed to continue pushing for voting rights legislation.
The past two days, Senators debated the legislation. Both Democrats and Republicans held the floor to share their thoughts on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, voting rights in the states, and filibuster reform. On Wednesday, most Democratic Senators stayed on the floor to affirm the need for this legislation.
Senator Padilla outlined the importance of passing these bills to secure the right to vote:
“No matter where you live, no matter which state, no matter which zip code, no matter your political party preference, you deserve multiple safe, secure, accessible options for registering to vote and for casting your ballot.”
Senator Whitehouse highlighted the campaign finance reform section of the bill, stating:
“This is our chance to fix this… big dark money corruption has no place in American democracy.”
Debate on this bill was a step forward to address the issues facing our democracy. However, despite robust discussion on the floor, the bill still faced a 60 vote cloture threshold to end debate and vote on the bill.
What Happens After the Senate Debates the Bill?
Another Vote Bites the Dust
As expected, the Senate voted for cloture on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act and failed to reach the required 60-vote threshold. The vote failed 49-51on a party-line vote with all Republicans voting in opposition. Schumer joined Republicans in voting no for procedural reasons so he can enter a motion to reconsider the vote. Schumer then moved to change Senate rules on the filibuster to create a “carve-out” for this voting right bill. Technically, Schumer sought to alter Senate Rule 19 so that each senator can only speak twice on this bill.
This rule currently allows senators to speak twice “on any one question” but doesn’t limit how many times they may do so on any single bill, so debate can drag on forever. Schumer’s proposal would have allowed the leadership to cut off debate with 60 votes. Or, alternatively, a filibuster would have come to an end once all senators who wish to have spoken have done so. Schumer initially laid out this “talking filibuster” plan during a closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats on January 18 and introduced it on the Senate floor last night.
Late yesterday, Schumer moved to reconsider the cloture vote and has made a point of order to implement the proposed rule change. Senate Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy rejected the point of order, as expected. Schumer then appealed the ruling of the chair. The vote to change the Senate rules failed 52-48. Sens. Manchin and Sinema were the only Democrats to vote against the rule change. The result was not a surprise: Manchin spoke earlier on the Senate floor on Wednesday making it clear that he will not support any changes to the filibuster that are enacted by a simple majority, including reinstating a talking filibuster. Instead, Manchin sought more debate and his opposition to Schumer moving to close debate later that evening.
As we kick-off this midterm election year, Democrats confront another difficult and damaging loss. The enormous frustration inside the Democratic caucus is mainly aimed at Sen. Manchin, who has blocked one of the party’s top priorities regularly. Senate Republicans continue to show they are unwilling to come to the table on voting rights after multiple good faith Democratic efforts. Now the Senate might work to find a bipartisan solution to protecting our democracy, such as reforming the Electoral Count Act. However, that reform would only address presidential electors and not state efforts at gerrymandering, voter suppression, and election subversion.
Even with control of Congress, Democrats are unable to enact legislation due to the arcane filibuster rule. Without reforming the filibuster, Democrats are back to the drawing board on voting rights legislation. Protecting our democracy is too important to let this setback be the end for voting rights, election reform, and campaign finance reform in Congress. A year from Biden’s inauguration and 10 months away from the midterms, it is crunch time for Democrats to act on important priorities like voting rights and economic security before it is too late.