Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections, ratcheting up already inflamed tensions over voting rights.
Senators voted 50-50 in the evenly divided Senate on advancing the For the People Act, splitting along party lines and failing to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
The vote is the culmination of weeks of partisan rancor and behind-the-scenes talks over changing the nation's voting laws in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.
That contest was historic both for taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, which led to historic levels of mail-in voting, and because of former President Trump's baseless allegations that massive voter fraud led to his defeat, an argument that culminated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and continues to reverberate in certain conservative circles.
Several states — including Georgia, which was won narrowly by President Biden and then delivered the Democrats their Senate majority — have made changes to their voting laws since then, energizing a sharp debate over whether the new rules will limit the votes of Democrats and minority groups and edge them out of being able to control of Congress.
Underscoring the political importance of the issue to Democrats, Vice President Harris presided over the hours-long Senate debate and vote.
Republicans railed against the bill ahead of Tuesday’s vote, arguing it was a partisan takeover of federal elections and exactly the sort of legislation meant to be blocked by the Senate’s filibuster.
“The Senate is no obstacle to voting laws done the right way. ... The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten. And that’s exactly why this body exists,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
The ultimate outcome of Tuesday’s vote was never in doubt: Republicans have pledged for weeks that they would prevent Democrats from even bringing their bill up for debate, much less passing.
But Democrats have been holding a frenzy of talks as they’ve tried to shore up support from within their own members. Hours before the vote, centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced he'd reached a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to back the measure.
That ensured that Democrats would be united on the measure and that they could argue it was only Republicans who were voting against even opening a debate on the issue.
“All 50 Democrats will vote 'yes.' Every one of us wants to start debate. ... Right now the vote, is will the Republicans move to proceed or are they unanimously against it?” Schumer said.
Manchin kept his colleagues in suspense until Tuesday afternoon as he tried to hash out an agreement with Schumer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, on the roughly 800-page bill.
“These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor. ... As I have said before, the right to vote is fundamental to our American democracy and protecting that right should not be about party or politics. I remain committed to finding a bipartisan pathway forward because the future of our democracy is worth it,” Manchin said in a statement.
Under the deal, Manchin voted to open debate in exchange for Schumer pledging to give Manchin a vote on his proposal as a substitute amendment, something that ultimately didn't happen because Democrats weren't able to start debate on the bill. It would have been the first amendment considered.
Even as Democrats touted their unity, there was still some internal wrangling over Manchin’s proposal.
The legislation set national voting standards, changed the composition of the Federal Election Commission, added new restrictions on congressional redistricting, overhauled campaign finance and included new ethics rules for the president and vice president.
Manchin, based on a list he circulated to his colleagues, supports making Election Day a public holiday, mandating at least 15 consecutive days for early voting in federal elections, banning gerrymandering and tightening campaign finance requirements.
But he opposes one of the more controversial parts of the bill: public financing of campaigns. And he proposed voter ID requirements with the possibility of alternatives such as a utility bill to provide proof of identity in order to vote.
Democrats said on Tuesday that there were still concerns about Manchin’s proposal on voter ID.
“He’s got some voter ID requirements there that we need to work through. I think there’s concern from many of us who don't see a problem out there of voter fraud that needs to be fixed with something onerous. The issues on landing this proposal come not just from Sen. Manchin but from many of us who want to make sure that we don’t move backwards,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Democrats are vowing that Tuesday’s failed vote won’t be the last word on trying to protect voting rights as GOP state legislatures across the country debate and in some cases enact new rules.
Republicans have defended the restrictions, arguing that they are a natural snapback after the coronavirus changed how Americans voted in 2020.
Harris talked with Schumer over the weekend on voting legislation, according to a White House official, who noted that she has been in touch with a “number of senators” and civil rights groups.
“In the coming days and weeks, the Vice President will engage with voting rights advocates and groups, business leaders and lawmakers. She will make the case publicly that voting is fundamental to our democracy, and that defending that fundamental right is the most important work we can do as a nation,” the White House official said.
But to get any voting legislation through the Senate, Democrats either need to win over at least 10 GOP votes or nix the legislative filibuster that requires 60 votes for most bills to pass. Tuesday’s vote immediately poured fuel onto the Senate’s rules change debate.
To nix or change the legislative filibuster, Democrats would need the support of all 50 of their members, something they don’t have. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are dug in against getting rid of the 60-vote threshold, and several others are viewed as wary.
But progressives view Tuesday’s vote as a first step in a much larger pressure campaign over the filibuster.