Senate Republicans prevented Democrats from moving forward on voting rights legislation, and Democrats failed to obtain 50 votes to change Senate rules to allow the legislation to be passed with a simple majority.
The dramatic night began with the Senate voting on whether to end debate on voting rights legislation, a move that fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer then called for a vote on a rule change to move the legislation forward with a one-time exemption, which Republicans and two members of his own party, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, fiercely opposed.
Democrats were clearly dissatisfied with Manchin and Sinema, with Senator Bernie Sanders declaring after the vote that Manchin and Sinema had “forced us to go through five months of discussions that have gotten absolutely nowhere.”
Following the vote, President Joe Biden issued a statement in which he expressed “profound disappointment” with the outcome but did not blame his Democratic colleagues.
According to Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to lead the effort to pass voting rights legislation. Harris stated in a statement following the failure of the voting rights bill that “Senators voted to keep an arcane Senate procedure in place rather than to protect that fundamental freedom. The American people will never forget this moment. Neither will history.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “perhaps the most important day in Senate history,” and predicted that if the Democrats prevailed, they would “break” the Senate.
Schumer needed 51 votes to move forward on the rules after changing his vote on voting rights legislation to allow the bills to be reconsidered. Manchin asked at one point if the vote could take place without the rule change, which was denied.
Democrats’ proposed Senate rules change would have instituted a “talking filibuster” for the voting rights legislation alone. After senators used their opportunities to speak to filibuster the bill, final passage would require a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60, under this plan.
Earlier in the day, Manchin warned his colleagues that using the so-called nuclear option to eliminate the 60-vote threshold would exacerbate the current political schism.
Manchin delivered his speech alongside a poster that read, “The United States Senate has never been able to end debate with a simple majority,” and he called claims by his Democratic colleagues that eliminating the filibuster would restore the vision of the Senate that the founding fathers intended “simply not true.”
Several Republican senators, including McConnell and Minority Whip John Thune, gathered on the floor to hear Manchin’s speech.
Earlier Wednesday, Schumer responded to Sinema’s and Manchin’s opposition, as well as their claims that the filibuster is used to foster bipartisanship.
Under intense pressure from some Democratic lawmakers and activist groups, Manchin and Sinema have remained steadfast in their defense of the filibuster. EMILY’s List, a group that supports female politicians who support abortion rights, has stated that it will not support Sinema in future elections if she refuses to support a rule change that would allow voting rights legislation to pass.
The votes on Wednesday came just hours after President Biden’s first press conference of the year. Mr. Biden’s signature piece of legislation, the Build Back Better social spending bill, is also stalled in the Senate due to Manchin and Sinema’s opposition.
The voting rights legislation includes a wide range of proposals to increase voting access. Some of the proposals include declaring Election Day a national holiday, establishing voter ID requirements, and allowing no-excuse absentee voting across the country. It would also establish a baseline for early voting for at least 15 days before Election Day, as well as same-day voter registration.
The bill would reinstate a core provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek Justice Department approval before changing their election policies. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned this section of the law.