Senate Democrats fail to advance voting rights legislation and changes to filibuster

WASHINGTON – Democrats have come up short on a last-ditch effort to advance a sweeping voting rights bill and ending, for now, their push to beat back a myriad of GOP-sponsored state laws that civil rights advocates say would suppress turnout by minority voters.

The vote Wednesday night to end debate on the bill was shot down, 51-49, with every Republican voting against moving the bill to the Senate floor for a final vote. Democrats needed 60 votes to overcome a legislative procedure known as the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., changed his vote to "nay" at the end in a procedural move that would allow him to bring the legislation to the floor again at a later date.

Hours later, a separate vote to change the filibuster rules for the voting rights bill so it could pass with a simple majority of 51 votes also failed.

In a statement shortly after the failed vote to change the filibuster, President Joe Biden said, "I am profoundly disappointed that the United States Senate has failed to stand up for our democracy. I am disappointed – but I am not deterred.

"My Administration will never stop fighting to ensure that the heart and soul of our democracy – the right to vote – is protected at all costs. We will continue to work with allies to advance necessary legislation to protect the right to vote. And to push for Senate procedural changes that will protect the fundamental right to vote."

The success of a voting rights bill seemed a long shot for months in the evenly divided chamber. Republicans have stood in opposition all year, but its fate was ultimately sealed last week as Democrats were unable to convince Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to go along with a plan to change the Senate rules and allow a vote on the measure.

The bill combined the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

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The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgia Democratic representative and civil rights icon, would have restored Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

The Freedom to Vote Act would have created a federal standard for voting by mail and drop boxes – means of voting that former President Donald Trump and some Republican lawmakers attacked during the 2020 election. The legislation would also expand early voting options and access to mail-in ballots; curb large, anonymous political contributions known as dark money; and allow for same-day voter registration on Election Day.

"The purpose of the Freedom to Vote Act is to give every eligible American more choices about how and when to cast a ballot, no matter where you live, no matter which state or in which zip code, no matter your political party preference," Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

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However, in order to pass the legislation, 10 Senate Republicans would have needed to join all 50 Democratic voting senators to bypass the filibuster. 

Republicans have consistently argued elections should be left up to the states and that federal legislation would violate the Constitution and unfairly tilt elections toward Democrats.

A recent analysis reveals the six states where it is hardest to vote due to restrictions on absentee and early voting.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it a "partisan bill to take over the nation's elections," during the Senate floor debate.

Blocked from bringing the bill to the floor for a vote on passage, Democratic leaders then put forth a vote to change the filibusterto advance the bill.Most Democratic senators and President Joe Biden threw their support behind the rule change.

More:Sen. Mark Kelly supports change to Senate's filibuster rule for voting-rights legislation

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Democrats argue urgent action on voting rights is needed because Trump's unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud helped spur the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol last year as well as a raft of laws in nearly 20 states restricting voter access or participation.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group affiliated with the New York University School of Law, in 2021 at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting.

More:What is the filibuster? A look at the Senate’s consequential quirk and debate on its future

Democrats needed a unified caucus, or 51 votes with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie in the 50-50 Senate, to change the Senate rule that preserves the filibuster. 

Sinema of Arizona and Manchin of West Virginia stated repeatedly prior to the vote on the rule change they support the decades-old Senate rule, arguing that the filibuster is important to protecting the minority party. They have remained unmoved on their position despite pressure from their party.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2021.

Sinema delivered a passionate speech from the Senate floor minutes before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill last week to talk to the caucus about voting rights and the filibuster. She said eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate more partisan and "would worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country." 

More:Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin defend filibuster, likely crushing Biden's hopes of passing voting rights bill

Senate Democratic leaders worked behind the scenes to come up with a scenario to get Sinema and Manchin on board and put forth changes to the Senate rules to revert back to a "talking filibuster".

A talking filibuster would require senators who object to legislation to be physically present and debate a bill and would limit the time of debate before the chamber would move on to final passage with a simple majority. Currently, a senator can keep a bill from reaching the floor without being present to lodge an objection.

"If Republicans block cloture on legislation before us, I will put forward a proposal to change the rules to allow for a talking filibuster on this legislation as recommended by a number of our colleagues who've been working on this reform for a long time," Schumer said Tuesday, reiterating the rule change would be used just for voting rights.

Senators debated the issue late Wednesday night, though its chances of success seemed dim from the start as Harris, who would be a tie breaker if Manchin and Sinema were on board to give Democrats 50 votes, left the Capitol before lawmakers began.

She told reporters as she left the building that “Whatever happens tonight from the outcome of this vote, the president and I are not going to give up on this issue. This is fundamental to our democracy, and it is non negotiable."

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said during the debate, “Our proposal is to restore a talking filibuster ... and to make a simple change, to make it public rather than secret so that our colleagues and the American public can understand and then hold us accountable for our action.”

The vote failed 48-52 with Manchin and Sinema joining all Republicans.

Manchin spoke earlier from the Senate floor during the debate on the voting rights legislation Wednesday, reiterating his support for the filibuster, saying that eliminating it, even just for voting rights, would "be the easy way out."

"It wasn't meant to be easy. I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country, not to divide our country," he said. "We're called the United States, not the divided states. And putting politics and party aside is what we're supposed to do. It's time that we do the hard work to forge a difficult compromise that can stand the test of time."