POLITICS

Republicans Block Debate On Voting Rights Bill, Setting Up Summer Filibuster Fight

Democrats face a key question: Will they choose to protect the filibuster or voting rights?

All 50 Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to block debate on a sweeping reform bill covering voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and government ethics that is the priority of congressional Democrats.

The For the People Act was introduced as the first bill by Democrats in both the House and the Senate after they won control of both chambers in the 2020 election. It passed the House on a party-line vote in March with one Democrat voting no. But passage in the Senate was precarious as Democrats hold just 50 seats and the chamber’s rules allow the minority Republicans to block any bill that can’t receive 60 votes. 

Although all 50 Democrats ultimately voted to move forward with the bill, the GOP filibuster prevailed. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with voting rights protection and expansion efforts, presided over the vote.

“This is one of the most critical issues the U.S. Congress could take up, which is about the fundamental right to vote in our country,” Harris said after the vote. “This fight is not over.”

The GOP-led filibuster tees up a question for the Senate Democratic caucus: Will it change the chamber’s filibuster rules to allow the bill to pass with a simple majority? Or will a small group of Senate Democrats choose to protect the filibuster over the right to vote in states run by Republicans?

This is an urgent question to voting rights proponents who see the bill as the antidote to a wave of voter suppression bills. These bills were passed by Republican state legislatures to fulfill the wishes of ex-President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed that fraud cost him the 2020 election and tried to get all votes cast in majority-Black precincts in key swing states invalidated.

Just before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged his Republican colleagues to stand up to Trump and vote to at least debate the bill to protect voting rights.

“Are we going to let the most dishonest president in history continue to poison our democracy from the inside?” Schumer said. “Or will we stand up to defend what generations of Americans have organized, marched, fought and died for: the sacred, sacred right to vote?”

The For the People Act, as it currently exists, would overturn many of the rollbacks to voter access contained in recent GOP-backed election laws by instituting a national floor for rules regarding early, absentee and in-person voting and voter registration. These provisions were originally introduced as legislation written by the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis (D). The bill, a combination of reform proposals developed over the past 15 years, would also limit partisan gerrymandering, create a voluntary public campaign financing system for congressional elections, ban undisclosed “dark” money, increase election cybersecurity and enhance foreign lobbying regulations, among many other things.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) does not support the For the People Act as it currently exists.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) does not support the For the People Act as it currently exists.

Democrats were fully united on advancing the voting rights package, although Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed reservations with some of its provisions.

Manchin, the lone Democrat who did not co-sponsor the bill, announced Tuesday that he will vote to begin debate on it with the understanding that the Senate will later vote on a “compromise” proposal he negotiated that includes a narrower selection of proposals from the For the People Act, plus a national voter identification provision, albeit one much looser than those instituted in many Republican-run states. He presented this compromise as something that could receive bipartisan support, but those ideas face fierce Republican opposition as well. His compromise was warmly received by President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and 2018 Democratic Georgia governor candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.

However, Manchin’s “compromise” amendment won’t get a vote on Tuesday because Republicans will block the underlying bill from proceeding.

“Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy,” Manchin said in a statement. “I remain committed to finding a bipartisan pathway forward because the future of our democracy is worth it.”

While the For the People Act was introduced as S.1, the bill number reserved for the majority’s top priority, the bill that will go for a vote Tuesday was S.2093, which contained the original text of the For the People Act as amended in the Senate Rules Committee in May. The introduction of a new bill was deemed necessary by leadership as the committee vote on S.1 deadlocked 9-9 on a party-line vote. The Senate would need to first vote to bring the bill out of committee after such a deadlock before voting to proceed to debate. This eliminated the need for that vote. Any future bill incorporating changes that would win Manchin’s support, or for any other reason, would likely be introduced as yet another bill.

The only way forward for the bill to pass if Republicans block it is for Senate Democrats to vote unanimously to change the chamber’s filibuster rules.

Manchin has been adamant that he will never vote to eliminate the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes in the Senate to advance and pass legislation. In an April opinion piece published by The Washington Post, Manchin called the filibuster “a critical tool to protecting ... our democratic form of government.”

“That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” he added.

And it’s not just Manchin standing in the way of passing more parts of the Democrats’ agenda. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has repeatedly praised the filibuster as a force for good in encouraging bipartisanship in the Senate. On Monday, the eve of the vote on the For the People Act, Sinema again defended the rule.

“To those people who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act (voting-rights legislation I support and have co-sponsored), I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?” Sinema wrote in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post

Manchin and Sinema aren’t the only ones who hold that opinion among the Democratic caucus, but they are the most vocal. Other Democratic senators who prefer to stay on the sidelines have issued vague statements in support of filibuster reform without taking a fulsome position that it needs to go.

Biden, a longtime defender of the filibuster, expressed frustration with Republicans earlier this year over the rule, saying it is “being abused in a gigantic way.” Biden has expressed support for more narrow filibuster reforms but he too has not come out for doing away with it outright.

“If the vote is unsuccessful tomorrow, we suspect it will prompt a new conversation about the path forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Monday press conference when asked about the future of the For the People Act and the Senate filibuster.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Tuesday’s vote is on S.2903. The correct bill is S.2093.