U.S. Senate Republicans shut down efforts to open debate on a sweeping elections reform and voting rights bill brought to the Senate floor by Democrats Tuesday night.
In a party-line 50-50 vote, the Democratic measure, S.1, titled the For the People Act, did not reach the 60-vote threshold required to end a filibuster and advance. Democrats did pick up the last-minute support of a wavering member, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, and presented a united front, but still fell short without any GOP support.
Senate Majority Chuck Schumer acknowledged the likely outcome in a floor speech earlier Tuesday, but stressed the need for federal legislation to protect voting rights. The sprawling, 800-page voting bill has been a priority for Democrats this year, and used as a prime example by progressives of why the filibuster should be eliminated.
Republican-controlled state legislatures have moved to propose and enact legislation that Democrats and experts say would restrict voting access, particularly for rural residents, people with disabilities and communities of color.
“So in state after state, state after state, Republicans are reducing polling hours and locations and the number of drop boxes, so that Americans of all parties — but particularly Democratic voters, people of color, young people, poorer people — have a harder time finding the time, place, and manner to vote,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, said.
As of May 14, state Republican legislators have introduced 389 bills with restrictive voting provisions across 48 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Currently, 22 bills have been passed into law, with 61 bills in 18 states pending in state legislatures. Recent overhauls of voting laws enacted in Georgia, Florida and Montana have alarmed Democrats because the laws limit the number of ballot boxes for voters, restrict mail-in voting and ban the distribution of food and water by groups to voters waiting in long lines.
“There is a rot — a rot — at the center of the modern Republican Party,” Schumer said.
“Donald Trump’s Big Lie has spread like a cancer and threatens to envelop one of America’s major political parties. Even worse, it has poisoned our democracy, eroded faith in our elections, which is so detrimental to the future faith people need to have in this democracy.”
The bill, which includes sweeping voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics reform, did not reach a majority vote when it was considered in the Senate Rules Committee in May — senators split 9-9. Schumer had to use a Senate procedure to bring the package to the floor.
The House passed its version of the bill, sponsored by Maryland Rep. John P. Sarbanes (D), in March, 220-210.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a Senate floor speech that the bill was nothing more than a political move by Democrats to win elections and is an overreach by the federal government in elections.
“The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said. “And that’s exactly why this body exists. Today the Senate’s going to fulfill our founding purpose, stop the partisan power grab and reject S. 1.”
Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee said on the Senate floor that the bill has little to do with voting rights.
“This is a politically motivated federal takeover of elections that would give us the exact opposite of what is laid out in the Constitution,” Blackburn said. “The founders — the founders — granted the states power over their own elections for a reason. The federal government is beyond incompetent to get this job done.”
Hagerty, like McConnell, called the bill a power grab.
“In a 50–50 Senate, this is a blatant attempt by those who are in power by the slimmest possible margin to take over and rewrite the election and campaign rules for all 50 states in one fell swoop,” he said.
While all Republicans voted against advancing the bill, it was unclear until hours before the vote that all Democrats would back the procedural vote. Manchin, who has also been working on alternatives, had remained a sticking point.
He recently published an opinion piece in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, in which he said he planned to vote against the For the People Act because he felt the bill was partisan and that any voting legislation passed in Congress needs to have bipartisan support.
He also affirmed that he would not vote to eliminate the filibuster.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, similarly wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post ahead of the vote, reiterating her stance on keeping the filibuster, and warning her colleagues they should not eliminate it to pass S.1.
“To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act, 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?” she asked.
She did vote in favor of the voting rights bill.
Manchin shifted Tuesday, when he said in a statement that he was able to find common ground on a new version of the bill with Democrats.
“This compromise legislation makes it easier to vote by expanding voter access through early voting and vote by mail for those who are eligible and unable to vote in person,” he said. “Additionally, the bill has been modified to include voter ID requirements that aim to strengthen the security of our elections without making it harder for Americans to vote.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, told reporters on Capitol Hill that “we’re in a good place” with Manchin on board.
“Senator Manchin has been negotiating with us in good faith,” she said, according to pool reports. She said the Senate Rules & Administration Committee, which she chairs, will be holding a series of hearings throughout the nation on voting rights.
President Joe Biden did not answer questions at the White House on Tuesday afternoon on what Democrats’ next steps would be.
But ahead of the vote, the White House issued a statement through the Office of Management and Budget in support of the bill.
“Democracy is in peril, here, in America,” the White House said. “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 election of 2020 and its violent aftermath on January 6, 2021, when an armed mob of insurrectionists sought to overturn the voice of the people and a duly certified election, reminds us that our democracy is fragile,” the administration said.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D) similarly warned how fragile political outcomes could be and pointed to Georgia.
“Using Georgia as a specific example, their recently enacted changes will disproportionately hurt Black voters,” he said. “The Georgia state law imposes voter identification requirements on absentee ballots, makes it hard to request an absentee ballot, and makes it a crime for groups to provide food and water to voters waiting in line. Rather than imposing barriers to casting the sacred right to vote, Georgia should be looking at ways to improve voter access. “
Sen. Raphael Warnock, (D-Ga.), said on the Senate floor that it was Congress’ duty to protect voting rights as 14 states have enacted voting laws “where partisan actors, power hungry politicians have acted along partisan lines to make it harder—not easier—for eligible voters to cast a ballot, and guarantee that that ballot will actually count.”
“Right now across the nation, constitutional rights are being assaulted, and I fear that if we don’t act as a body in this moment, we will have crossed a dangerous Rubicon in our nation that will make it extremely difficult for the next generation to secure voting rights for every eligible American,” he said.
In a floor speech after the vote, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) characterized it as a “low point for this body.”
“We witnessed every Republican senator voting against moving forward to consider legislation to strengthen our democracy,” Van Hollen said. “I don’t know why people are afraid of debating this issue, which is so fundamental to our country.”
Sarbanes vowed after the vote that Democratic leaders in Congress would continue to pursue a change, and said “inaction is not an option.”
“We will continue to press ahead, and we will not rest until we bring the For the People Act across the finish line,” he said. “Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans may fancy themselves an immovable object, but the American people — including the broad majority of Democratic, Independent and Republican voters who support the For the People Act — will remain an unstoppable force.”
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.