Senate Republicans on Wednesday voted down a major Democratic voting rights bill by opposing an effort to bring the bill itself to a vote, setting up a showdown among Senate Democrats over whether they will unilaterally change the Senate's filibuster rules in order to pass the legislation as President Joe Biden has demanded.
Senate Democrats began 2022 with a full-throttle push to pass federal voting rights legislation in response to GOP-controlled states passing bills restricting voting and election administration. But they've continued to run up against unified Republican opposition to the voting measures, and dissent over filibuster reform from within their own ranks.
Republicans used Senate rules that require 60 senators to bring most legislation to a vote — where it can pass with a simple majority — to block the "Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis Act." The measure combines The Freedom to Vote Act, a sprawling voting rights and democracy reform package, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that restores and refortifies key components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the federal courts have struck down or weakened.
Congressional Democrats deployed creative procedural hijinks to fast-track consideration of the bill and ensure that the measure, unlike three previous voting rights bills considered by the Senate in 2021, would get a debate on the Senate floor.
House Democrats used an unrelated NASA leasing bill as a legislative vehicle by stripping its text and replacing it with the contents of the two voting bills, which the House passed along party lines on Thursday morning.
Under the current Senate filibuster rules, most legislation needs 60 votes to proceed to debate. But because the underlying NASA legislation had already been considered by both the House and the Senate, it was considered a "message" between chambers and therefore only needed a simple majority of 51 votes to advance to debate.
The legislation itself, however, still needed a 60-vote majority to end debate and proceed to a final vote in the Senate. And after several hours of debate on the Senate floor, all 50 Senate Republicans voted against ending debate on the bill on Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will now hold a vote on changes to the Senate filibuster rules to secure the passage of voting rights legislation. Schumer will now begin the process of invoking the so-called "nuclear option" to seek to change the chamber's filibuster rules along party lines; its name derives from those who view it as an extreme workaround on Senate rules.
Normally, changes to the Senate rules require a two-thirds majority to pass. But under Senate procedure, Senate leaders can invoke the nuclear option to change the filibuster with a simple majority. The Senate previously invoked the nuclear option to lower the threshold for executive branch and federal court nominees to a simple majority in 2013 and then again in 2017 for Supreme Court nominees.
Substantial changes to the filibuster remain unlikely due to lack of unity on the matter within the Democratic caucus and, in particular, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona's continued opposition to major reforms.
On Thursday, President Biden paid a special visit to Capitol Hill to lobby Senate Democrats on voting rights and filibuster changes.
But Biden was partly upstaged by Sinema, who took to the Senate floor before his visit for a rare public speech throwing a bucket of ice water on changing the 60-vote threshold, which she said has a "role in protecting our country from wild reversals from federal policy."
"These bills help treat the symptoms of the disease, but they do not fully address the disease itself," she said of the voting rights measures. "And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country."
Biden's appeals to Manchin, a longtime staunch supporter of the current 60-vote filibuster threshold, also fell flat.
"The Senate's greatest rule is the one that's unwritten. This is an unwritten rule and it's the greatest one we have: it's the rule of self-restraint, which have very little of anymore," Manchin said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "The rule will be broken along with the cloture rule if the nuclear option is executed, and to that, I cannot be a party."
Both Manchin and Sinema are thus likely to oppose Schumer's plan for a one-time rules change that would require Republicans to sustain a talking filibuster in order to block the voting rights bill.
A talking filibuster would require a senator or group of senators in opposition to speak continuously on the Senate floor to block legislation, making a filibuster more onerous but also potentially grinding to a halt all other work before the chamber.
But due to Manchin and Sinema's opposition to lowering the 60-vote cloture threshold, Senate Democrats are far from reaching a consensus on filibuster reform changes, leaving the chances of voting rights legislation overcoming unanimous opposition from all Senate Republicans are slim to none.
The failure is yet another major setback not just for congressional Democrats but for the Biden White House. Biden, whose economic agenda is still indefinitely stalled in the Senate, has faced mounting, open frustration from voting rights advocates for the lack of progress on voting rights legislation at the federal level.