Senate begins debate on voting rights legislation

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer speaks behind a lectern.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), shown speaking to the media last week. On the prospect of voting rights legislation, Schumer said, “Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds.”
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

The Senate began debate on voting rights legislation Tuesday for the first time this Congress, inching toward putting every member of the chamber on the record about where they stand on the issue.

But the legislation is almost certain to die, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

The bills Democrats want to pass — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act — will fall short of receiving the 60-vote threshold needed to end debate, and Democrats lack the unanimous support required in their caucus to change the rules to lower that supermajority requirement.

“Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds, especially when virtually every Senate Republican — virtually every Senate Republican — is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor.


“But I want to be clear: When this chamber confronts a question this important — one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy — you don’t slide it off the table and say ‘never mind,’” he said. “Win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights.”

After Senate Democrats met privately Tuesday afternoon, Schumer announced that the rule change they intend to pursue is a so-called talking filibuster, which would require opponents of a bill to continually speak on the floor to block it.

“We feel very simply on something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office,” Schumer said. “They’ve got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights, the wellspring of our democracy.”

Schumer earlier this month committed to taking up voting rights and rules changes by Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, though he ultimately pushed that timeframe back due to concerns of a winter storm over the weekend.

And though the effort appears all but doomed, voting rights activists said they agree with Schumer’s approach to hold a vote, highlighting the importance of the American people seeing for themselves where each member stands.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have made clear they oppose abandoning the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation, even though they support the legislation’s goals.

Now other moderate Democrats who may privately agree with Manchin and Sinema will have to determine which side they’ll align with when they vote.

“Much has been made about Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, former chief executive of the Democratic National Committee and campaign manager of the Fighting for Our Vote coalition. “Are they the only two that are opposing? We need to know. So this is the time for Democratic senators and Republican senators to go to the floor and make their positions known. The American people deserve to know.”

Absent federal legislative action, new laws that have been enacted in states with Republican-led legislatures will remain in place during the midterm elections in November, potentially erecting new barriers to voting that weren’t in place in 2020.

Activists worry that mere confusion or uncertainty about the changing laws, in addition to new regulations that limit early voting, restrict drop boxes and absentee ballots and require voter identification, could depress turnout, particularly among a diverse coalition of voters who traditionally turn out for Democrats.

“We just can’t underestimate how detrimental the policies that have passed at the state level over the last year will be to voters being able to cast their ballot in the fall, and that’s what scares me the most,” said Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, a nonprofit organization focused on building the political power of young people.

Activists have lamented that the framing of the debate has been around whether Democrats will succeed or fail when only two senators, Manchin and Sinema, are holding up the party’s agenda. They also argue that voting rights should be a bipartisan issue and that failure would be a reflection of Congress as a whole.

“I wish that we could assure voters, especially young voters, that elected leaders will do the right thing and protect our democracy at the highest levels of government, and the fact is we are sadly not there,” DeWitt said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Democrats are hypocrites because they used the filibuster late last week to block passage of a Russian pipeline called Nord Stream 2. The measure had majority support in the chamber but fell short of the 60-vote threshold.

“Many of these same colleagues have spent weeks thundering that the Senate’s 60-vote threshold is an offensive tool of obstruction, a ‘Jim Crow relic,’ declaring that simple majorities should always get their way,” McConnell said in floor remarks Tuesday. “But last week they literally wielded the 60-vote threshold themselves. A useful reminder of just how fake the hysteria has been.”

Activists said they hope that the unsuccessful voting rights effort will demonstrate to Americans the need for larger Democratic majorities in Congress.

“Democrats have to establish a clear majority so that one or two senators are not holding the rest of us hostage,” Daughtry said. “It’s going to be hard — there’s no doubt about it.”