Sinema scuttles Democrat hopes for filibuster reform

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) doubled down on her support for the 60-vote legislative filibuster Tuesday, roughly an hour before President Biden meets with Democrats to push for changing the Senate rule in order to pass voting rights legislation.

“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema said during a Senate floor speech.  

She added that she has had “long-standing support” for the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation to advance in the Senate. 

“It is the view I continue to hold. It is the belief I have shared many times in public settings and in private settings,” Sinema said. “Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy.”

As Sinema was speaking, several GOP senators were on the floor listening to her speech: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sens. John Thune (S.D.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Thom Tillis (N.C.). 

Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), who spoke before Sinema, and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) were at their desks for Sinema’s speech.  

Sinema’s speech is the latest sign that Democrats' bid to change the legislative filibuster is poised to fall short, scuttling their hope of passing voting rights legislation in the face of GOP opposition. But the timing offers a particularly hard gut-punch to Democrats and a reality check at the possibility that Biden is able to unite all 50 Democrats behind changing the filibuster.  

Sinema’s speech comes roughly an hour before Biden is scheduled to arrive on Capitol Hill to urge Democrats to pass voting rights legislation even if they have to change the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most bills.   

To change the rules on their own, Democrats would need total unity from all 50 members of their caucus. But despite intense behind-the-scenes talks, they aren’t there yet. 

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sinema haven’t embraced changing the rules. Absent a surprising move by both Democratic senators, the Biden-backed bid to change the filibuster will fall short and scuttle the ability to pass voting rights legislation.  

Manchin has long opposed using the so-called nuclear option to change the Senate’s rules and reiterated this week that rules changes should have bipartisan support in order to be enacted.  

Asked about Sinema’s speech on Thursday, Manchin told reporters that it was an “excellent speech.”
“I think it’s the points that I’ve been making for an awful long time and she has too,” he said.

Aside from the opposition from Manchin and Sinema, Democrats haven’t yet landed on what their rules change proposal will be. The lawmakers are mulling a talking filibuster that would let opponents delay a bill for as long as they could hold the floor but would allow the legislation to pass by a simple majority. 

They are also contemplating a carveout from the 60-vote filibuster for voting rights legislation that would leave the hurdle intact for other bills.  

Changing the filibuster was once viewed as a fringe position, but a growing number of Democratic senators have embraced it in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, which former President Trump has falsely claimed was “stolen.”  

Several GOP-controlled state legislatures have also enacted new measures to tighten restrictions on voting following the 2020 elections.

The House passed legislation on Thursday that combines the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which overhauls federal elections. 

Once Republicans block the bill, as they are expected to, Schumer has vowed to force a vote on changing the Senate’s rules. Schumer on Thursday morning made a plea to his Democratic colleagues to support changing the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.  

“As we continue this important conversation about the future of our democracy, I ask my Democrat colleagues to consider the following — if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States to do the same?” Schumer asked.  

Sinema reiterated on Thursday that she supports the two voting rights bills and raised a red flag over the state-level changes to voting rules. 

“These state laws have no place in a nation whose government is formed by free, fair and open elections,” Sinema said, while saying they were “symptoms” of bigger divisions with the American political system. 

“Threats to American Democracy are real,” she said. “I strongly support those efforts to contest these laws in court and to invest significant resources into these states to better organize and stop efforts to restrict access at the ballot box.”

Sinema has long called for a public debate over the Senate’s rules, adding on Thursday that while the “harried discussions about Senate rules are but a poor substitute” that the discussion was a “worthy goal.”

“I share the disappointment of many that we’ve not found more support on the other side of the aisle for legislative responses to state-level voting restrictions. I wish that were not the case,” she said.

“Just as I wish there had been a more serious effort on the part of the Democratic Party leaders to sit down and genuinely discuss how to reforge common ground on these issues,” Sinema added.

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