Voting rights bill fails in Senate as focus shifts again to filibuster

·9 min read

The For the People Act, the sweeping voting rights bill championed by Democrats, was blocked in the Senate Tuesday as it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the evenly divided chamber.

The procedural vote to open debate on the bill was supported by all 50 Democrats and opposed by all 50 Republicans. 

The legislation would have made it easier for people to vote by mandating 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, allowing for same-day voter registration and unlimited ballot collection, enacting automatic registration for federal elections and lowering identification requirements.

President Joe Biden called the vote "the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression—another attack on voting rights that is sadly not unprecedented."

"This fight is far from over—far from over. I’ve been engaged in this work my whole career, and we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again—for the people, for our very democracy," the president said in a statement. 

Capitol
The Capitol. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It would also ban the practice of partisan gerrymandering, in which state legislatures redraw congressional districts in irregular shapes that are designed to give their party an advantage. Good-government advocates say that nonpartisan commissions should redraw the lines every 10 years, after each census.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the For the People Act is a sweeping federal power grab that includes numerous impractical provisions. Some election experts agree with this assessment.

The Democrats focused on securing a unified agreement among all 50 members of their party in the Senate, including centrists like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin last week released what he would like to see included, and he has been negotiating with other Senate Democrats to reach an agreement. On Tuesday afternoon, Manchin said he would vote in favor of moving forward with debate on the legislation, a win for Democrats.

Manchin would favor 15 days of early voting and making Election Day a public holiday, as well as automatic voter registration. But he also backs requiring voter ID and does not favor universal no-excuse absentee voting, two positions long embraced by many Republicans.

The Senate Democrats' unified front allowed them to approach Republican senators who might be open to supporting the bill, but also gives Democrats running for election in 2022 the ability to say that their party stood as one in favor of expanding voting access while Republicans would not even debate the issue. The odds of even Manchin’s proposal gaining the support of 10 Republicans are not at all high, and many see the demise of the effort as a fait accompli.

Two Republican senators who have voted with Democrats on some occasions — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — both panned the sweeping version of the bill favored by progressives. Murkowski called the original legislation “wholly partisan” and Collins criticized “over-the-top rhetoric” by Democrats. 

Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

But former President Barack Obama on Monday backed the Manchin effort and urged Republicans to join with Democrats in figuring out a way to increase both the security and the integrity of elections while also reducing barriers to voting.

“You’ve had President Obama come out,” Manchin told reporters in Washington, referring to the former president’s specific and unusual singling out of his compromise approach. “We’ve just got to keep working.”

If no agreement can be reached, the focus will shift to the filibuster rule, which has prevented Democrats from enacting key priorities without Republican support, like the elections bill overhaul.

Many progressives want Senate Democrats to vote to get rid of the legislative filibuster. Republicans eliminated the blocking procedure for Supreme Court nominations in 2017 in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, after Democrats got rid of it for judicial nominations other than the Supreme Court in 2013.

Democrats who want to do away with the legislative filibuster paint the current scenario in apocalyptic terms, saying that if the Senate does not pass the For the People Act, Republicans will be able to strong-arm and cheat their way to power in Congress, largely through voter suppression.

But that narrative doesn’t appear to have purchase with some number of Democrats, including possibly even President Biden.

Joe Biden
President Biden meeting with advisers on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

It’s true that Republicans have supported legislation making it harder to vote for the last two decades, such as voter ID laws that allow gun permits but not college student IDs, limiting early voting and voting by mail, and removing people from voter rolls simply for not voting. They have also used dubious justification for doing so, claiming that serious fraud exists without ever providing evidence for their claims. On the other hand, studies suggest that turnout levels in elections do not have a partisan impact, and Democrats have not provided conclusive proof that voter suppression has kept their candidates from winning elections.

One of the most bitterly fought campaigns in which voter suppression became an issue was the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. Kemp oversaw the race in his capacity as secretary of state — essentially serving as referee in a game in which he was competing — and enacted a number of measures that clearly made it harder for minority and poor voters to cast ballots.

Kemp won and Abrams contested the result, refusing to say she lost a fair election. Since then she has become revered by Democrats and reviled by Republicans.

Many Democrats remain convinced not only that democracy is at stake but that their party cannot win elections in which turnout is lower, despite evidence to the contrary.

Critics say there is much to be concerned about regarding the direction of the GOP, as former President Donald Trump continues to spread lies about the 2020 election outcome, making wildly false claims that he somehow won despite the complete absence of any evidence. And many in his party continue to either spread these lies or go along with them.

Activists
Voting rights advocates demonstrate at the Supreme Court. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In fact, Congress has not done anything yet to counter efforts in Republican-controlled states to make it easier for state legislatures to overturn, change or meddle with election results after Election Day. This is the issue, liberals and good-government activists argue, that has the capacity to truly bring down American democracy.

As for the voting rights bill, Biden has chosen to focus his administration until now on reaching a bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans. It’s a clear attempt, politically speaking, to create a Democratic brand that can appeal to centrists and moderates in national elections.

This is the central tension driving the drama inside the Democratic Party, between those who think the party can win only by driving up turnout and appealing to its base, and those who believe Democrats have to attract and maintain broader support. Data supports the latter group, showing that the electorate is fluid, not static, with tens of millions of low-information voters and many millions more who are eligible and could vote in future elections but have not yet done so.

Recent examinations of the last election by Democratic strategists have also shown that Latino voters in particular are not as locked into the Democratic fold as many in the party have believed.

The Senate’s failure to reach a bipartisan infrastructure deal could set the Biden White House and the Democratic Party on a path of building public support for reforming or abolishing the filibuster, or simply toward passing as much as they can through budget reconciliation, a limited tool but one that allows them to pass certain provisions with only 50 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris playing the role of tiebreaker.

Jen Psaki
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday vowed that Biden will not abandon the cause of voting rights, but is taking a somewhat longer view.

“This fight is not over no matter the outcome today,” Psaki told reporters. “It is going to continue."

She also said the White House believed that the vote would “prompt a new conversation” about the filibuster rule in Congress.

But the path to abolishing the legislative filibuster continues to look unlikely. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reiterated her opposition to doing so in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, and she and Manchin are just the two most outspoken Democrats in the Senate who do not want to get rid of the procedure.

In the meantime, Attorney General Merrick Garland has vowed to combat voter suppression laws with renewed vigor, doubling the number of lawyers in the Justice Department's civil rights division in response to a rash of laws that have made it harder to vote in many states.

The For the People Act passed the Democrat-controlled House in March on a near-party-line vote. Not one Republican voted for it.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., excoriated his GOP colleagues over their opposition to expanding voting rights.

Charles Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, via Getty Images)

Schumer said there is a “rot at the center of the modern Republican Party” over efforts to restrict voting after Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

An official statement of policy released by the Biden administration Tuesday warned that “democracy is in peril, here in America.”

“The right to vote — a sacred right in this country — is under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time,” the statement read. “This landmark legislation is needed to protect the right to vote, ensure the integrity of our elections, and repair and strengthen American democracy.”

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