Lisa Mascaro | Associated Press
WASHINGTON. Voting legislation that Democrats and human rights groups say is vital to protecting democracy was blocked Wednesday by a Republican filibuster in a setback for President Joe Biden and his party after a heated, emotional debate.
Democrats were ready to move immediately to vote on changing the Senate’s rules to overcome piracy and approve the bill with a simple majority. But the rule change also led to defeat, as Biden failed to convince two dissenting senators from his own party, Kirsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchina of West Virginia, to change Senate procedures for that single bill.
“This is not just another ordinary day in the Senate, this is a moral moment,” said Senator Raphael Warnock, Georgia.
The original vote was 49-51, not counting the 60 votes needed to defeat the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., voted no on procedural grounds so Democrats could revise the legislation.
The late-night vote ended a day of heated debate that carried echoes of an earlier era when opponents of civil rights legislation used the Senate filibuster in lengthy speeches.
Voting rights advocates warn that Republican-led states across the country are passing laws to make it harder for black Americans and others to vote, merging polling stations, requiring certain types of identification, and making other changes.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided, capable of casting a potentially decisive 50-50 vote in the Senate.
The Democrats decided to move forward despite the possibility of a high-stakes defeat at a turbulent time for Biden and his party. Biden marks his first year in office as his priorities stalled in the face of staunch Republican opposition and the failure of Democrats to unite around their own agendas. But Democrats wanted to force high-profile senators—even those who disagreed with their own party—to show voters their position.
“I didn’t give up,” Biden said earlier at a press conference at the White House.
Sinema and Manchin have weathered the onslaught of criticism from black leaders and human rights organizations, and they risk further political repercussions as other groups and even their own peers threaten to withdraw their support for the campaign.
Schumer argued that the fight is not over and mocked Republican claims that new state election laws would not hurt voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump’s “big lies” about the 2020 presidential election.
The Democratic bill, the Freedom to Vote Act: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, provide access to early voting and mail-in ballots that have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, and allow the Department of Justice to intervene in states that which have a history of voter interference, among other changes. He passed the House.
Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the bill but are unwilling to change the Senate’s rules. With a 50-50 split, the Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate – Harris could break a tie – but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP’s filibuster.
Instead, Schumer proposed a more specific rule change for “talking filibuster” in this bill. This would require senators to get to their desks and exhaust debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice, which simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
But even that is expected to fail because Manchin and Cinema have said they don’t want to change party voting rules by Democrats alone.
Emotions spilled out during the debate.
When Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky if he would pause for a question, McConnell left the room, refusing to answer.
Durbin said he would have asked McConnell, “Does he really believe there is no evidence of voter suppression?”
Republican No. 2 Senator John Thune of South Dakota once said, “I’m not a racist.”
McConnell, who led his party in fighting the 60-vote filibuster threshold for Supreme Court candidates during Donald Trump’s presidency, warned against re-changing the rules.
McConnell poked fun at Democrats’ “false hysteria” over new state voting laws and called the pending bill a federal takeover of the electoral systems. He said that abandoning the pirate rules would “break the Senate.”
Manchin gathered an entire room of senators for his speech, eclipsing the presidential press conference and defending the filibuster. He said majority rule would only “add fuel to the fire” and it was “dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart.”
“For those who say bipartisanship is impossible, we have proved them wrong,” Manchin said, referring to a recent infrastructure bill he helped pass. “We can do it again. … We can make voting easier.”
Several members of the black caucus in Congress marched through the Capitol building to the hearing. “We want the Senate to act in a favorable manner today. But if that doesn’t happen, we won’t give up,” said Rep. James Clyburn, J.D., the highest-ranking black member of Congress.
Manchin did open the door to a more bespoke package of changes to voting law, including the Election Count Act, which was tried out during the January 6, 2021 Capitol uprising. He said bipartisan senators are working on it, and it could get Republican support.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the bipartisan coalition should work on legislation to ensure voter access, especially in remote areas like her state, and to bolster Americans’ faith in democracy.
“We don’t need, we don’t need a repeat of 2020, when, by all accounts, our last president, having lost the election, sought to change the results,” Murkowski said.
She said the debate in the Senate had reached an unsettling state: “You are either a racist or a hypocrite. Really really? Is this where we are?”
Biden, once unwilling to change Senate rules himself, has stepped up pressure on senators to do just that. But the push from the White House, including Biden’s scathing speech last week in Atlanta that compared opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late.
At one point, Democratic senators gathered in the dressing room, having a deep discussion with Manchin. During the debate, Cinema sat in her chair, almost never looking up from her phone.
Associated Press contributors Farnoush Amiri and Brian Slodysko contributed to this report.