WASHINGTON – Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital for protecting democracy appeared headed for defeat as the Senate churned into debate Tuesday, a devastating setback enabled by President Joe Biden's own party as two holdout senators refuse to support rule changes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
The Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, faced strong criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations for failing to take on what critics call the “Jim Crow filibuster.”
The debate carries echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation. It comes as Democrats and other voting advocates nationwide warn that Republican-led states are passing laws consolidating polling locations and requiring certain types of identification.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the current bill's likely defeat this week. But he said the fight is not over as he heeds advocates' call to force all senators to go on record with their positions.
“We ain't giving up,” Schumer said after an evening strategy meeting. “It is a fight for the soul and the future of America.”
This is the fifth time the Senate will try to pass voting legislation this Congress.
The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act combines earlier bills into one package that 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.
Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the package, which has passed the House, but they are unwilling to change the Senate rules to muscle it through that chamber over Republican objections. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority – Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie – but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Instead, Schumer announced the Senate will vote on a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this one bill – requiring senators to stand at their desks and argue their views, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
Initial voting could start today. But even the proposal for a “talking filibuster” is expected to fail, since Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned of changing the rules. He said Tuesday it would “break the Senate.” Democratic senators countered in speeches from the Senate floor that with Republicans objecting to the voting legislation they have no choice.
Manchin did open the door to a more tailored package of voting law changes – including to the Electoral College Act, which became a focus of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol – that he said a bipartisan group of senators are working on and could draw Republican support.
“There are so many things that we can agree on,” he said, though he held firm against voting to change the filibuster rules.
Just as Manchin and Sinema blocked Biden's broad “Build Back Better” domestic spending package, the two senators are now dashing hopes for another major part of Biden's presidential agenda. They are infuriating many of their colleagues and faced a barrage of criticism during Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.
Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, compared Sinema and Manchin to the white moderates his father wrote about during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s – who declared support for the goals of Black voting rights but not the direct actions or demonstrations that ultimately led to passage of landmark legislation.