Democrats in the U.S. Senate late on Wednesday launched an unlikely effort to change the chamber's filibuster rule, after Republicans used it to block voting legislation sought by President Joe Biden.
The Republican wall of opposition, for the fifth time in less than a year, delivered a new blow to Biden's domestic agenda just months before Nov. 8 congressional elections. A major bill to expand investment in domestic social programs was already languishing in Congress.
Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes they needed to overcome a legislative hurdle known as the filibuster that requires at least 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to advance legislation.
But two days of spirited debate on advancing the sweeping bill, which its advocates contend is aimed at enhancing voter participation in U.S. elections, culminated with a majority of senators sitting in their seats listening intently to final arguments.
"How can we achieve real consensus on the issues that matter most if only some voters can be heard," Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock said in a plea to Republicans.
Democrats urged passage of a bill that they said would strengthen a democracy buffeted by domestic strife and the Jan. 6, 2021, violent riot at the U.S. Capitol. Opponents of the measure argued that Dems were trying to fix elections in their favor, and were overstepping on matters more properly left to states to legislate.
Underscoring deep divisions in Congress and throughout the nation, Republicans have also contended that Democrats had fabricated a crisis over voting rights and maintained that little or nothing needed to be done with the way states administer elections.
The final tally on limiting debate on an election reform bill was 49-51. No Republicans voted to advance the legislation.
The Senate then launched into a second debate, one in which Democrats called for scaling back the chamber's decades-old filibuster rule just for this voting rights bill. The change was designed to circumvent Republican opposition and pave the way for enacting the voting rights bill with a simple majority of Democratic votes.
This, too, was expected to fail because it was being opposed by Republicans and a small number of Democrats.
Indeed, as of about 10:30 p.m. ET, the Dems had failed to secure enough votes to change filibuster rules. Two Senate Dems, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, have oppposed such changes and threw in with their GOP peers in opposing changing the filibuster at all. The final vote, 52-48 against proposed filibuster revisions.
Discussion was reportedly continuing.
NEW STATE LAWS
Several Republican-controlled state legislatures last year, driven by former President Donald Trump's claims of widespread election fraud, passed laws that Democrats insist will discourage voting, especially in areas with large blocs of Black, Hispanic and poor people who are part of the core of Democratic supporters. Proponents of these laws say they will simply ensure the integrity of elections in the future.
Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin forcefully defended his opposition to changing the filibuster rule, even though he supports the voting rights legislation itself. His vote would be needed to overturn the rule.
"Let this change happen in this way and the Senate will be a body without rules," Manchin said. "We don't have to change the rules to make our case to the American people for voting rights."
Biden told a news conference on Wednesday that he had not given up hope of advancing voting rights.
"We've not run out of options yet," Biden said.
With the Senate split 50-50, Democrats would need support from all of their caucus members plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris to change the chamber's rules on the filibuster. Manchin's fellow conservative Democrat Kyrsten Sinema also opposes changing the rule.
Manchin did, however, open the door for backing narrower election legislation, including providing federal funds to protect nonpartisan state election workers against violent threats.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber's top Republican, warned Democrats against revising the filibuster rule on legislation. "The fear is false, the rage is misplaced and today factional fevers will not carry the day," McConnell said.
© 2023 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.