GOP blocks election bill, setting up filibuster face-off

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a sweeping election bill, setting up a doomed push by Senate Democrats to try to change the chamber’s legislative filibuster.

Senators voted 49-51, falling short of 60 votes needed to advance the legislation that combines the Freedom to Vote Act, which would overhaul elections and campaign finance laws, with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  

Democrats spent the hours leading up to the vote making an 11th hour plea for the legislation — directed at both Republicans and their own members — warning that the votes would go down as a crucial moment in history.  

“It is … a rare moment in history because we again are being called on as others have before us to speak to the fundamentals of freedom and democracy and to go on record by the end of the day when night falls as to where we stand in the sweep of history,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).  

But no Republicans voted to move forward with the legislation, accusing Democrats of trying to take over elections.  

“The president and his party will try to use fear and panic to smash the Senate, silence millions of Americans and size control of our democracy,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).  

The vote will trigger an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to change the Senate’s rules to get rid of the 60-vote hurdle for voting rights legislation, while leaving it in place for other issues.  

“If the Republicans block cloture on the legislation before us, I will put forward a proposal to change the Senate rules to allow for a talking filibuster on this legislation,” Schumer said.  

“Make no mistake: win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on such an important issue as this. And win, lose or draw, we are going to vote. We are going to vote — especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights does,” he added.  

Under the proposed rules change, Democrats would enact a talking filibuster for voting rights legislation. That would allow opponents to delay a bill by holding the Senate floor, but the legislation would be able to pass the Senate by a simple majority.  

Democrats had discussed trying to change the rules to shift to a talking filibuster for all legislation, but negotiators said they limited the proposal to just voting legislation to try to shore up support within the caucus. 

The rules-change vote is expected to take place as soon as Wednesday night, though Democrats have cautioned that it could slip into Thursday.  

But that effort will fall short. To change the rules without GOP support, Democrats would need total unity from all 50 of their members.  

Though Schumer picked up a key holdout on Wednesday morning when Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is up for reelection in 2022, said that he would support the rules change, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) remain opposed to the change. 

“Eliminating the filibuster would be the easy way out. It wasn’t meant to be easy," Manchin said on Wednesday. "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.” 

Democrats would have needed to win over both Manchin and Sinema to force through a rules change under the “nuclear option,” which changes the rules with only a simple majority instead of the 67 votes typically needed.  

Even though Democrats increasingly acknowledged in the days leading up to the votes that they were going to fall short, they are under pressure to show that they are all-in on trying to pass voting legislation.  

Democrats view federal election legislation as critical after GOP-controlled states enacted new voting rules in the wake of the 2020 election, which former President Trump falsely claimed was stolen.  

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus traveled to the Senate side of the Capitol on Wednesday to watch the Senate debate. Democratic senators, including Schumer and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), were spotted chatting with them.  

“The right to vote is central. The right to vote is sacred,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic caucus. “So we’re saying to every single senator, Democrats and Republicans, to support the Joe Manchin Freedom to Vote Act and the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”  

Even as the voting rights fight appeared baked in, it sparked new tensions in the Senate.  

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the only Republican who previously voted to start debate on the John Lewis voting rights bill, lamented the state of the Senate, questioning if bipartisan working relationships were at an all-time low.  

“I was part of a very troubling conversation last evening. ... it was shared depending on which side you're on in this body today on this issue, you're either a racist or a hypocrite. Really, is that where we are?" 
Manchin lamented the state of the Senate during his speech, saying: “I don’t know what happened to the good old days, but I can’t tell you they aren’t here now.” 

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