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Democrats Assail Filibuster As They Push for Voting Rights Legislation

August 4, 2021 by Dan McCue
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., says the filibuster must go at a rally on Aug. 3 in D.C. calling on the Senate to delay its summer recess until the For the People Act is passed. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Nearly a dozen U.S. Senators — all of them Democrats — made the short walk from the Capitol to the green near the Robert Taft Memorial on Tuesday to join scores of state legislators in calling for passage of the For the People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics bill aimed at protecting voting rights across the nation.

The rally was organized by the Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of activist and advocacy groups supporting the legislation and calling for an end of the filibuster, which would allow the Act to pass without a single Republican vote.

The House passed the bill in March by a 220-210 vote in which one Democrat joined all Republicans in the chamber in voting against new federal guidelines for campaign finance, voting access and ethics laws.

But it has stalled in the 50-50 Senate because as long as the filibuster remains in place, GOP senators can block it simply by remaining united.

Activists fear if the law isn’t taken up and passed by the Senate before its summer recess in less than a week, its provisions won’t be in effect to protect voting rights in 2022 and safeguard the process of redistricting getting underway in the fall.

As it stands now, Democrats in the senate are unable to break the logjam themselves because two of their colleagues, Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, oppose ending the filibuster.

A sign of discontent at a rally calling for the passage of the For The People Act. (Photo by Dan McCue)

That’s why, among all the signs being waved on Tuesday that bore such slogans as “Protect the Freedom to Vote” and “Recess Can Wait, Our Democracy Can’t” were others with more personal messages like one intended for Manchin that said “History Has Its Eyes on You.”

But the main event at the rally was the speeches by the U.S. senators, among them Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, D-Ga., whose election helped create the current tie in the chamber and who called this “a defining moment in America.”

“We debate a lot of things in this democracy, but voting rights is about the democracy itself,” he said. “It is the framework in which all of our arguments happen. We can agree. We can disagree. We can agree to disagree. But at the end of the day, the four most powerful words in a democracy are ‘the people have spoken.’”

The senator described his own life story, and that of his parents, as being forever altered by a right to vote that had been denied to generations of Black Americans.

“When my parents were growing up in [rural Georgia], a lot of Black teenagers made what little money they could picking somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton,” he said. “But because this is America, because we keep pushing toward our ideals, the 83-year-old hands that used to pick somebody’s else’s cotton got a chance to pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.”

Warnock went on to say that instead of celebrating “the best of the American dream” state lawmakers in Georgia and elsewhere “got busy trying to silence the voices of the people. 

“As I’ve said time and time again, this is really very simple. Some people don’t want some people to vote. When they should have been busy trying to suppress the virus, they were busy trying to suppress your vote,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., an original sponsor of the For the People Act. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“We all know what this is. This is the delta variant of the Jim Crow voting law. … and the only vaccination is federal legislation.”

In fact, many state lawmakers said Tuesday the reason they traveled to Washington, D.C, and braved its August high temperatures, was to stand alongside Texas Democrats who fled to D.C. last month to block Republicans from passing voting restrictions.

Many also said they had come from states where GOP leaders have supported former President Donald Trump’s false claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the 2020 election.

After the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, Georgia state Rep. Renitta Shannon said Black, brown, and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters in her state have “faced relentless attacks on their ability to exercise their right to vote.”

“I have served on the state House committee that deals with election law since 2017, and let me tell you, every single year, I have witnessed bills meant to suppress the vote sail through that committee — even when the discriminatory effects have been directly called out,” she said.

As a result, Shannon said, Black, brown and AAPI voters and organizers, “have had to try to relentlessly ‘out organize’ the new voter suppression laws, just to have their community voices heard. 

“Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not. But the bottom line is, it shouldn’t be that way,” Shannon said.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, D-Ga., addresses a rally on Aug. 3 in D.C. calling on the Senate to delay its summer recess until the For the People Act is passed. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., an original sponsor of the For the People Act, picked up where Warnock left off, telling the rally crowd that when the former pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church and Jon Ossof were elected to the senate — pulling off a Democratic sweep — state lawmakers said “We have to go back to our bag of tricks from pre-1965.”

“They said, ‘We have to erect barriers to voting for people from targeted communities.’ And who are those communities? Black Americans, other communities of color, Native Americans, poor Americans and college students.

“Are we going to let them erect those barriers to the ballot box? Absolutely not,” Merkley said. “But to prevent that, we have to pass the For The People Act. The Act says you can’t turn purple states to red states by manipulating and rigging the election. And it says you can’t gerrymander the House of Representatives by changing how you select districts. In fact, it defends equal representation.”

“There are those who say, ‘Just by gerrymandering in four states — Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Texas — we can ensure ourselves control of the House of Representatives by the powerful instead of the people.’ And when I hear them go on to say that these new voting laws are making it easier to vote, but harder to cheat, I say what you’re doing is exactly the opposite. You’re making it harder to vote and easier for you to cheat. And I’ll tell you something else, it should be a crime, people should be locked up, for preventing people from voting.”

Of those who spoke out against the filibuster, the two most forceful were Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Chris Van Hollen, of Maryland.

In a rousing, emotional speech, Booker reminded his listeners that “power concedes nothing without a demand … it never has and it never will.”

“Without struggle, there is no progress,” he said. “And there are people now who want to take us back. They don’t represent the majority of us. But they are leveraging their power. We see it in the Senate. Remember, the filibuster is not a part of the Constitution and it is intended only as a leverage of power.

“They filibustered the Civil Rights Act and they filibustered the Voting Rights Act and they filibustered the Fair Housing Act, but we …. the people … overcame those filibusters and we must do so again,” Booker said.

The Capitol dome looms over a rally calling for passage of the For The People Act. (Photo by Dan McCue)

“We must wake up the echoes of our ancestors. We must call to the conscience of our country. We must let everyone understand that freedom is not free, that progress will never remain unless it is struggled for and fought for and worked for time and again. 

“That sacrifice … is the story of America, the story of imperfect geniuses who came together and put forth this daring dream, this dangerous dream of America. There was no inevitability about it. Every generation has had to expand upon the original ideals to include women and gay people and Native Americans and Black folks, and all folks. And now it’s our generation’s turn. What will our epitaph be? Will it be the story of how we went back on women’s rights and we went back on workers rights and we went back on voting rights? I say no.”

“I agree with my friend and colleague, Cory Booker, that we need to end the filibuster,” Van Hollen said. “As he said, the filibuster is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. It’s an invention of the United States Senate. And it’s an anti-democratic invention, not capital D democratic, small d. 

“Why? Because what it does is take an institution, the Senate, which is already tilted against the majority, and make it even more so; it compounds the anti-democratic nature of the United States Senate giving a very small minority the power to block the will of the people,” he continued.

“And so it is a crazy system, where we have exceptions to the filibuster to pass a 2017 Trump tax cut. But we don’t have exceptions to the filibuster to pass the For The People Act and protect our democracy. That is a disgrace. What kind of system is that? Where you say, ‘Okay, 51 senators can give big corporations a tax cut, but 51 senators or 50 senators and the vice president cannot protect the democracy of the United States. That is a scandal. And we need to keep fighting until we overturn it.”

State legislators and activists followed up Tuesday’s rally with a march from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to Lafayette Square on Wednesday to demand that President Biden increase his pressure on senators to protect voting rights.

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