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Voting Rights Are Probably Doomed in the Senate

Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin reiterated their opposition to weakening the filibuster on Thursday.

A close-up of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
Rod Lamkey/Getty Images
Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema brought a swift end to hopes that Democrat might pass legislation to protect the right to vote against Republican voter-suppression efforts.

Congressional Democrats have pressed ahead with their efforts to pass voting rights legislation this week, but their goals went from merely quixotic to almost fantastical on Thursday as two Democratic senators reiterated their opposition to weakening the filibuster despite a personal appeal from President Joe Biden in a visit to the Capitol.

The House voted in the morning to send the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to the Senate, but by lunchtime it was apparent that both measures would be doomed to fail, as Senator Kyrsten Sinema gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor explaining her unwillingness to change Senate rules to allow the legislation to pass. Sinema argued that, while she supported these bills and was concerned about the spate of measures being considered in Republican-led states that restrict voting rights and make it easier for partisan actors to subvert elections, she believed that weakening the filibuster would exacerbate political discord.

“These bills help treat the symptoms of the disease, but they do not fully address the disease itself,” Sinema said in a speech that was attended by multiple Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who later praised the Arizona Democrat for her stance on the filibuster. “And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”

Sinema also slammed Democrats for not doing enough in her view to court Republican support for their legislation, and called the debate over a rules change to the filibuster “poor substitute for what I believe could have and should have been a thoughtful public debate at any time over the last year.” Republicans had repeatedly blocked debate of voting rights legislation this year; Democrats also engaged in a months-long effort led by Senator Joe Manchin to get Republicans on board with the Freedom to Vote Act.

Sinema’s words were a rebuke to Biden, who delivered a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday urging the Senate to change Senate rules to allow passage of the two bills. She also delivered her remarks just moments before Biden attended a meeting of Senate Democrats to urge them to take necessary steps to approve voting rights legislation.

A brief explanation of the filibuster, in case you’ve been living as a hermit for years and this is the first article you’ve read since reemerging from your mud-baked hut in the woods: Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats have a 50-seat majority. As long as the 60-vote threshold is in place—and it will remain so, given the opposition to changing Senate rules to eliminate or weaken it from all Republicans, Sinema, and Manchin—the voting rights bills cannot pass.

“I hope we can get this done. But I’m not certain,” Biden said after meeting with Senate Democrats. “Every other civil rights movement that came along, if we missed the first time, we come back and try it a second time. We missed this time.”

Manchin released his own statement later on Thursday reiterating his position, although he waited until after hearing from the president to do so. “The filibuster plays an important role in protecting our democracy from the transitory passions of the majority and respecting the input of the minority in the Senate,” Manchin said. “For those who believe that bipartisanship is impossible, we have proven them wrong. Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country by putting politics and party aside.” (Nevertheless, Biden persisted: Manchin and Sinema were set to travel to the White House to meet with the president on Thursday evening.)

The two bills were brought to a vote in the Senate through a complicated procedural gimmick. In the House, Democrats gutted an unrelated bill pertaining to NASA and replaced the text with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. The House voted along party lines on Thursday morning to send that bill to the Senate. (Representative Don Beyer, whose bill was hollowed out, was circumspect about the situation. “I told the speaker last night, ‘Anytime you need to gut one of my bills to do something really important, it’s fine,’” he told The New Republic with a laugh.)

Sending the two bills over from the House as a “message” allowed the Senate to begin consideration after a simple majority vote. Republicans had previously blocked both bills from even being debated, so the measures will finally have the opportunity for full floor consideration. “I don’t know whether the Republicans will want to show up or not, but we will have a lot that we want to say,” Senator Tim Kaine told The New Republic. “I hope that floor debate process will also include a robust possibility for amendments. If the Republicans are interested, we are interested in hearing what they have to say.” However, the bills will still eventually be subject to the 60-vote threshold for ending debate, setting up the likely unsuccessful showdown over changing filibuster rules.

Despite the foregone conclusion that the bills will fail, Democrats insisted to reporters that it was still important to hold the votes. “It is important for us to move forward. This is a defining moment. I think everybody has to be heard on the record,” said Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is running for reelection in a state that has recently passed a measure restricting access to absentee voting and ballot drop boxes.

Senator Chris Murphy told reporters that Democrats would “continue to work throughout the weekend to find a path to 50,” although he acknowledged, “the odds are against us.” Murphy said, “Ultimately, we come to the Senate to vote. There are times where having a vote regardless of the initial consequences can lead to success down the line.”

Kaine, a member of a group of moderate Democrats who have met regularly for months to discuss potential rules changes to weaken the filibuster, told The New Republic that it was too early to say whether those efforts have been worth it. “Ask me that question when it’s done. I am preparing to have either the best day I’ll have in the Senate or the worst day I’ll have in the Senate,” he said.

Among House Democrats, the frustration with the Senate was palpable. Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who has considered launching a primary challenge against Sinema in 2024, called her out by name in a speech on the House floor. “Today the House showed where it stands,” Gallego said. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy and the voting rights of all Americans. It’s past time the U.S. Senate and Senator Sinema to do the same.”

Representative David Cicilline argued that Democratic priorities stalling in the Senate undermined the party’s argument to voters ahead of the midterm elections. “We can’t go to the American people a year from now, or less than a year from now, and argue about having delivered when the Senate is sitting on this legislation,” Cicilline told The New Republic. “They expect us to deliver on these things, and they’re right. They don’t want to hear about filibusters and procedural arguments.”

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s electoral loss, and his repeated lies about the 2020 election, several Republican-controlled legislatures introduced voting restrictions. Some of these bills ​​make it more difficult to vote by mail, reduce polling places, or empower partisan actors to take greater control of the elections process.

While some of the Democratic proposals existed before these state voting restrictions began to be considered, they would counteract some of their measures. The Freedom to Vote Act includes provisions enacting automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday, ensuring that every state has same-day voter registration, and banning partisan gerrymandering. It would also require a minimum of 15 consecutive days of early voting and allow all voters to request to vote by mail. In a compromise to supporters of voter identification requirements, it would impose a “a uniform national standard” for states that do have voter ID requirements.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 mandating that jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination obtain approval by the Justice Department or federal courts before making changes to their voting rules.

There’s still possibility for bipartisan action, such as reforming the Electoral Count Act to clarify the process by which Electoral College returns are certified. A bipartisan group of senators has met to discuss it. Senator Angus King, a proponent of such a change, told reporters after the meeting with Biden that he believed “there’s a reasonable opportunity here for a bipartisan bill,” but worried that “it will be viewed as a substitute for the Freedom to Vote Act, and that’s just not the case.” King, who has only recently announced his support for filibuster reform, also said that he understood Sinema’s concerns about ending the filibuster.

“She believes that the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I hope profoundly that she’s right. I fear that she’s wrong,” King said.