Republicans on Wednesday blocked the Senate from beginning debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act with a filibuster ― their fourth filibuster of voting rights legislation this year.
The voting rights law, named for the late civil rights leader and Democratic congressman from Georgia, would reauthorize key sections of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were gutted in decisions by the Supreme Court’s conservatives in 2013 and 2020. The bill also contains elements of the Native American Voting Rights Act, which expands voting protections for Native Americans.
By using the filibuster a fourth time, Republicans have signaled clearly that they will not support any voting rights legislation, including the restoration of provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Democrats widely anticipated that Republicans would use the filibuster once again, and they were planning to use the moment to provoke a full examination within the caucus on whether to change the Senate’s rules to move forward.
“We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forwards, even if it means going at it alone, to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after Wednesday’s vote.
Democrats have described the John Lewis voting rights law and the Freedom to Vote Act ― a package of voting rights, campaign finance and redistricting reforms ― as “must-pass” bills. They point to the wave of restrictive election laws enacted in GOP-run states, and inspired by former President Donald Trump’s election fraud lies, as evidence for the need to pass them. And Schumer previously said “everything is on the table” as a means to get the legislation passed.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) vocally oppose changing the Senate’s filibuster rules. Despite this stated opposition, Democratic leadership has tried to show Manchin that support for passing voting rights laws and support for maintaining existing filibuster rules are at cross purposes. The filibuster of the John Lewis voting rights law completes this process.
Democrats’ push for democracy reform legislation started with the House passage of their marquee bill, the For the People Act. But Manchin declared his opposition to it in June after it failed to attract Republican support in the House or the Senate rules committee. Democrats then negotiated a compromise version of the bill ― the Freedom to Vote Act ― based on Manchin’s own framework for what he believed could garner GOP support.
Schumer gave Manchin time to shop his Freedom to Vote Act to Republican senators, but none agreed to sign on, and every single GOP senator filibustered it when Schumer brought it to the floor.
As the Freedom to Vote Act came up against a GOP filibuster, the House passed the John Lewis voting rights bill. Manchin supported this bill all along, saying it could attract Republican support. And it has.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Manchin announced a compromise on Tuesday with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to obtain her support for the John Lewis voting rights law.
The compromise makes a state’s enactment of voter identification laws optional in the consideration of whether the state obtains a record of enacting discriminatory practices. States with a history of discriminatory practices as described in the law must clear election changes in advance with the Department of Justice or through the courts. Another change to the bill removes legislation banning the delivery of food and drinks to voters waiting in line from the list of known discriminatory practices.
Support from one Republican is not enough to overcome a filibuster, which requires the votes of 60 senators to begin and end debate on most bills. That means the only way for either the John Lewis voting rights bill or the Freedom to Vote Act to pass is by changing the Senate’s filibuster rules.
If anything, Murkowski’s support illustrates how extreme Republicans have become in opposing voting rights legislation. When the Voting Rights Act last came up for reauthorization in 2006, it passed the Senate 98-0. Today, the GOP is happy to stand aside and let the conservative Supreme Court gut the 1965 act that ended Jim Crow election practices.
Republicans have shown Manchin they have no interest in passing voting rights legislation. The Senate Democratic caucus will now need to determine whether this is enough to gain his support to change the filibuster rules.
Democrats are now campaigning for “restoring the Senate” by changing the rules to allow more debate on legislation and a pathway to passage. What that would look like remains to be seen. The options being discussed include a filibuster carveout for voting rights legislation and the restoration of some form of talking filibuster.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Schumer strategized with Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) about the three moderates holding “family discussions” with other Democratic senators to find a way to “restore the Senate” and pass voting rights legislation around the filibuster, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide.
What is clear is that the existing avenues for all forms of voting rights legislation are blocked. The only way through is by changing the rules. The question now is whether Democrats genuinely believe that the new restrictive voting laws in several states, as well as Trump’s election fraud lies that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection, really are a threat to free and fair elections ― or not.