Voting Rights Fight Emerges as Key to Filibuster Overhaul

Senate Democrats launched their effort to pass sweeping voting rights legislation Wednesday, which could become the centerpiece of an attempt to weaken the chamber’s filibuster rule.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said proposals to roll back voting access in numerous Republican-led states this year represent a threat to democracy that would be countered by the legislation, which closely parallels a measure already passed by the House.

“We are standing up to the despicable, despicable acts of voter suppression in so many states,” Schumer said at a news conference. He said proposals in GOP states “smack of Jim Crow” laws designed to restrict Black voters.

The legislation is broadly opposed by Republicans, who are likely to attempt to block it in the Senate through a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. That may make the bill a test case for efforts among some Democrats to do away with or revamp the century-old rule that allows the minority party to prevent votes.

Some Democrats, notably West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, have said they oppose jettisoning the filibuster entirely. But Manchin recently said he might support making the filibuster more “painful” to employ, such as requiring a senator to stay on the floor and talk to delay a vote, a tactic made famous Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

President Joe Biden, a former senator, also has endorsed that approach.

“I don’t think that you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate back in the old days,” Biden said on ABC. “You had to stand up and command the floor, you had to keep talking.”

Schumer wouldn’t comment directly on Biden’s remarks Wednesday but said Democrats have to find a way to get things done. “Everything is on the table. Failure is not an option,” he said.

The Democrat-led House on a narrow 220-210 vote passed a bill March 3 that would make it significantly easier to vote, limit gerrymandering of congressional districts, require third-party political groups to reveal secret donors and overhaul the Federal Election Commission, among other changes. The legislation introduced Wednesday by Schumer and other Democrats would make some technical changes to the House measure.

Outside groups are pressing Democrats to permanently eliminate the legislative filibuster to get around GOP opposition to much of Biden’s agenda, with voting rights at the top of their priority list. Among the backers of ending the filibuster is former President Barack Obama, who last year called it “a Jim Crow relic” that should be eliminated if it’s used to block voting rights.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working to unite all Republicans against the voting-rights legislation he says is designed to give Democrats permanent advantages in federal elections.

McConnell warned this week of “scorched earth” retaliation if Democrats eliminate the legislative filibuster. He predicted that if they follow through, the next time Republicans gain control of the Senate the GOP would enact over Democratic objections legislation such as new restrictions on abortion, expanded gun rights, tougher border security and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood.

In order to change the Senate rules on filibusters, all 50 Senate Democrats would have to vote in favor and Vice President Kamala Harris would have to break the tie. Two Senate Democrats — Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have said they won’t vote to end the filibuster rule. And a number of other Senate Democrats are either reluctant to change the rules — like Dianne Feinstein of California, who told reporters Wednesday she’s hesitant to do so — or have yet to endorse the idea.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana told reporters Biden’s remarks will help Senate Democrats reach consensus on making changes, though he said the proposals under discussion now would still keep the threshold for ending a filibuster at 60 votes.

“I think a talking filibuster is entirely appropriate. This is the way it always should have been,” he said.

Tester said he think forcing people to talk would reduce the use of the filibuster, which has become an ever-present feature of the Senate in recent decades.

Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who along with Jon Ossoff flipped the Senate into Democrats’ hands in January, also called for overcoming the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation, lambasting fresh efforts by Republicans in his state to make it harder to vote.

“This issue is bigger than the filibuster,” said Warnock, one of just 11 Black senators in history. “We must find a way to pass voting rights whether we get rid of the filibuster or not.”

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