GOP blocks latest Senate attempt to bring up elections overhaul bill

Activists say senators now must choose between filibuster and democracy

Voting rights activists rally outside the White House on Tuesday ahead of a Senate vote to begin considering an elections overhaul bill. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Voting rights activists rally outside the White House on Tuesday ahead of a Senate vote to begin considering an elections overhaul bill. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted October 20, 2021 at 3:41pm

Senate Democrats and outside proponents of an elections and campaign finance overhaul say they plan to carry on their push for the measure, even as all Republicans in the chamber voted Wednesday to block debate, leaving the bill’s fate in peril.

A procedural vote to begin debate in the evenly split Senate needed 60 votes, but it never got more than 50 and every Republican voted against it. The measure was a compromise among Democrats, garnering the blessing of moderate West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, who said weeks ago he was working to gin up support from Republicans. 

That support never materialized. 

Even though the outcome was all but preordained, proponents had lobbied Senate Democratic leadership to bring it for a vote. They say they hope the lack of support from GOP senators may put pressure on Democratic holdouts, such as Manchin, to revise the chamber’s rules requiring 60 votes to overcome filibusters for legislation. 

“The Republicans have been given every opportunity to engage in this process,” said Fred Wertheimer, who runs Democracy 21. “They have been stonewalling the legislation, preventing even debate on it.”

But, he added, “filibuster rules have never been written in stone. Anyone who thinks this is over based on Wednesday’s vote is wrong.” 

The bill is a slimmed-down version of a more-than-800-page overhaul that passed the House in March. The revised version, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act, incorporates much of that sweeping overhaul, though it removed lobbying and ethics changes. It would establish minimum standards for voting across the country, such as same-day voter registration, universal voting by mail and minimum periods for early voting.

It would also require additional disclosures for groups that engage in election-related spending. The revised bill seeks to put an end to partisan gerrymandering by setting specific criteria for congressional redistricting. It also provides new protections for election workers and would set Election Day as a federal holiday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has led the charge against the bill, calling it a “federal takeover of our nation’s elections,” and he has seen no defections among his fellow Republicans in the House or Senate.

Democrats contend that such a bill is urgently needed to respond to GOP state laws that curb some pandemic-driven voting practices, such as widespread mail balloting.

“We will not be letting Washington Democrats abuse their razor-thin majorities in both chambers to overrule state and local governments and appoint themselves a national Board of Elections on steroids,” McConnell said in a statement last month. 

Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Democratic whip, said on the floor this week that the bill “sets reasonable minimum standards for voting access in all states” and is in keeping with the Constitution. 

“It will protect nonpartisan election officials from undue pressure and prevent politicians from overturning elections if they don’t like the voters’ choices,” he said. “The Freedom to Vote Act also makes it harder for billionaires and powerful corporations to buy elections. It’s going to prevent the flow of foreign money into U.S. elections.” 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer tweeted Tuesday that the bill “would fortify our democracy, protect the vote, and renew the American people’s trust in our elections.” The New York Democrat, who is up for reelection next year, used Wednesday’s vote to try to build his campaign email list, urging bill supporters to sign up “as an official supporter of the Freedom to Vote Act.” 

The final vote was 49-51, with Schumer switching his vote from “yes” to “no” at the last moment for procedural reasons, since that would give him an option of bringing the motion back up.

“The fight to protect our democracy is far from over in the United States Senate,” Schumer said after the vote.

Rolling back the filibuster rules has become a frequent refrain on the campaign trail for Democrats, including Senate candidates such as Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb. And it’s become a familiar refrain in fundraising pleas from Democrats running for the Senate and House, especially in states where Republican-controlled legislatures, citing former President Donald Trump’s false complaint that the 2020 election was stolen, have moved to enact new voting restrictions.

The White House issued a statement this week calling the bill a “must-pass priority” to “protect Americans’ constitutional rights from the systematic assault that Republicans have been mounting in state legislatures across the country, based on the Big Lie.”

In a Wednesday statement officially confirming President Joe Biden would sign the bill if it passed, the White House said the “landmark legislation is needed to protect the right to vote, ensure the integrity of our elections, and repair and strengthen American democracy.”

However, proponents of the legislation have focused much of their activism on the Biden administration, holding recent rallies in front of the White House. More are planned through November, according to Jana Morgan, director of Declaration for American Democracy, an umbrella group behind the advocacy push.

Morgan said she and other activists were arrested Tuesday in front of the White House, where they plan to hold additional demonstrations in the coming weeks. 

After Wednesday’s vote, Morgan said, “It’s a fight around the procedures of the Senate.” 

“We need Joe Biden to engage loudly,” she added. “We want to see him show us that it’s the No. 1 issue for him.”

Adam Bozzi, the vice president of communications for the Democratic-aligned End Citizens United Action Fund, said in a memo Wednesday that holding the Senate vote was significant, in part, because it marked “the first time this year all 50 Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin, support a voting rights package.”

His memo noted that senators have made more than 160 exceptions to the filibuster rules, adding, “The Senate must do whatever it takes to pass the Freedom to Vote Act.”

That’s a mantra that other liberal-leaning groups say they plan to rally around in the coming weeks. 

“The filibuster, an arcane rule of procedure, must not be more important than maintaining a democracy that can deliver for the people, and senators are now grappling with that truth,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen, which is pushing for the legislation.