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Senate GOP Blocks Democrats’ Election Reform Bill, Filibuster Support Softens

October 20, 2021 by Dan McCue
Senate GOP Blocks Democrats’ Election Reform Bill, Filibuster Support Softens
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Despite changes reflecting the spirit of compromise, Senate Democrats were unable on Wednesday to convince a single Republican to vote with them in support of guaranteeing Americans the right to easy access to the polls. 

As a result, the Senate voted 49-51 to end debate on whether to bring up the bill, known as the Freedom to Vote Act, falling short of the 60 needed.

It was the third time this year that Republicans on Capitol Hill had rejected a measure intended to counter sweeping voting restrictions in several GOP-controlled states.

Prior to the vote, President Joe Biden himself had weighed in, saying, “Democracy — the very soul of America — is at stake.”

After the vote, it fell to Vice President Kamala Harris to give voice to the administration’s disappointment.

“Today, the United States Senate had an opportunity to uphold the importance of every American’s right to exercise their fundamental right in a democracy, which is the right to vote,” Harris said in a written statement.

“When presented with this opportunity, Senate Democrats unanimously upheld the importance of that right. And the Republicans unanimously failed to do so,” she said. 

“The President and I remain undeterred. But there’s still a lot of work to do. Those of us who have fought for the right of every American to be able to express their voice through their vote are not going to give up. We’re going to continue to do the work,” Harris vowed.

But Republicans were unbowed. On Wednesday morning Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed the Freedom to Vote Act as just the “latest umpteenth iteration” of a bill that is only a compromise “in the sense that the left and the far-left argued among themselves about exactly how much power to grab and in which areas.” 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded by saying “members of this body now face a choice. They can follow in the footsteps of our patriotic predecessors in this chamber. Or they can sit by as the fabric of our democracy unravels before our very eyes.”

The Democrats have been trying to pass their voting reform and protection bill since the early Spring, by which time several Republican-controlled legislatures, inspired by Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election, adopted wide ranging voting restrictions.

In almost every case, they explained the changes as being made in the name of election security.

But if Democrats thought the could pass a response quickly, those hopes were quickly unended by members of their own party in the Senate — namely Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but also including Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats — who opposed changing the filibuster rules that would have allowed them to bypass the Senate’s Republican caucus.

As the months wore on, Manchin did work to secure changes to the bill to make it more likely to get at least some Republican votes.

The latest version of the bill would have created a set of national rules for running federal elections, would take steps to eliminate partisanship in the drawing of congressional districts, and ensure access for all voters to mail-in ballots.

In a nod to Manchin, the bill would limit, but not prohibit, state voter ID requirements.

If the changes didn’t entice Republicans in the end, they do at least appear to have begun softening opposition to doing away with the filibuster.

Though Manchin and Sinema have yet to waiver publicly, Sen. King has told reporters he’s “concluded that democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule.” 

And at the White House, spokeswoman Jen Psaki suggested this week that the president himself may be changing his mind on filibuster changes. In the past, he was against them.

“Are (Republicans) going to protect this fundamental right?” she said on Monday. “Or are they going to continue to be obstreperous — to use a word the president has used in the past — and put Democrats in a position where there’s no alternative but to find another path forward?” 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday evening that the stakes could not be higher.

“This year alone, 19 Republican-controlled state legislatures have enacted 33 laws to disenfranchise voters, while Republican-appointed judges continue to rip away hard-won voter protections in the courts,” she said. “This all-out assault on the sanctity of the ballot is silencing the voices of voters – especially voters of color – and diminishing their say in the destiny of our democracy.

“While Democrats offered a good-faith compromise with the Freedom to Vote Act, Republicans refused to even begin debate – because they know the only way they can win elections is by attacking the precious pillars of our democracy,” she said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called the Republican rejection of the Freedom to Vote Act “a shameful rejection of Americans’ fundamental right to vote” and then went on to call the vote, “further evidence of the threat the filibuster poses to our democracy.”

“Defending the integrity of our democracy and our elections should not be a partisan issue, yet Senate Republicans are refusing to allow this bill to be debated, just as they are blocking nearly every other piece of legislation supported by a majority of the American people.” Hoyer said. “It is essential that the Senate act on voting rights, as the House already has done, and I strongly support the elimination of the filibuster in order to achieve that and so many other things long overdue.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

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