Senate to vote on doomed voting rights bills, filibuster changes in final push for Democrats

A message for the senate to pass voting rights legislation sponsored by The Declaration for American Democracy, is seen on 3rd Street SW, on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The Senate could decide the fate of sweeping voting rights bills and proposed changes to the chamber’s rules Wednesday after months of wrangling over how far Congress needs to go to protect U.S. democracy.

The chamber aims to vote as soon as Wednesday night to advance legislation that would expand early and mail-in voting and make Election Day a national holiday, among a bevy of other reforms. Republicans will block the proposals.

Democrats then plan to vote on changing Senate rules to require a so-called talking filibuster for only the voting rights bills. The change would force GOP senators to actively speak on the Senate floor to block the legislation rather than withhold their support in a vote. If all senators used up their speeches – each is allowed up to two speeches, with no time limit – the chamber could pass the proposals with a simple majority.

While the Senate rules tweak would require a simple majority, it is also expected to fail. Two Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they will oppose most proposed changes to the filibuster.

“Win, lose or draw, we are going to vote, we are going to vote,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday on the floor of the chamber. “Especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of our democracy, as voting rights does.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., holds his new conference following the Senate Democrats caucus meeting on voting rights and the filibuster on Tuesday, January 18, 2022.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

The impasse will likely leave Democrats no closer to passing election reforms they view as vital to preserving ballot access after GOP-led legislatures in states such as Georgia and Texas approved restrictive voting laws last year. Supporters of voting rights legislation around the country — particularly voters of color who are expected to disproportionately feel the effects of state laws — have urged Democrats to take action before the November midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.

All 50 senators in the Democratic caucus have backed the voting rights bills before the Senate. They have not agreed on the need to scrap the filibuster to pass them.

Democratic leaders including President Joe Biden, who spent more than 30 years in the Senate, have urged the party to get behind the proposed rules changes.

It is unclear now how Democrats will proceed once the voting rights effort fails. Some Republicans have sounded open to reforming the process of counting electoral votes after a presidential election to make it harder to overturn a result.

Changes to the Electoral Count Act would respond specifically to efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to reverse Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory based on false claims of widespread cheating. After courts rejected Trump’s repeated efforts to overturn state results, his allies pressured former Vice President Mike Pence to step in when Congress counted electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021, the day a mob of Trump supporters overran the Capitol and delayed the transfer of power.

Pence did not try to reverse the presidential result. But the effort by Trump and his allies raised the specter of officials trying to overturn future elections.

Republicans have opposed any legislation that would create more federal guidelines for how states run elections. They have also warned that getting rid of the filibuster would affect how the Senate functions for years to come.

“Today the Senate will need to prevent this factional frenzy from damaging our democracy, damaging the center and damaging our republic forever,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.

Democrats will try to advance legislation that contains two voting rights bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The first proposal would expand early and absentee voting and make automatic voter registration the national standard. The plan aims to make it easier to comply with state voter ID laws and restore incarcerated people’s right to vote after their sentences end.

It would also enshrine Election Day as a national holiday.

The second bill named for the late civil rights activist and congressman aims to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gutted in a 2013 Supreme Court decision. Shelby County v. Holder invalidated the piece of the law that required certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get the Justice Department’s approval before changing voting rules.

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