After a tense, emotional discussion, two senators declined to join their own party in amending Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster, bringing the measure to a halt.
President Joe Biden and his party suffered a crushing defeat on Wednesday night, capping up a difficult first year in office.
Despite a day of piercing debate and speeches that echoed an earlier era when opponents of civil rights legislation used the Senate filibuster, Democrats were unable to persuade holdout senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to change Senate procedures on this one bill and allow it to be advanced by a simple majority.
“I am deeply disappointed,” Biden said after the vote in a statement.
The president, on the other hand, declared that he is “not discouraged” and that he will “examine every step and employ every weapon at our disposal to defend democracy.”
Republican-led states around the country are implementing legislation that make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by combining polling places, demanding specific forms of identification, and mandating other changes, according to voting rights groups.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the Senate for a short time, able to break a 50-50 tie if necessary, but she left before the final vote. Manchin and Sinema joined the Republicans in voting against the rule change, which was defeated 52-48.
The late-night vote put a stop to legislation that had been a prominent Democratic objective since the party assumed control of Congress and the White House in 2011.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., remarked, “This is a moral moment.”
The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, introduced by Democrats, would, among other things, make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become increasingly popular since the COVID-19 pandemic — and allow the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference. It has been approved by the House of Representatives.
Both Manchin and Sinema have stated their support for the plan, but Democrats fell short of the 60 votes required to overcome the Republican filibuster. On a largely party-line vote, it was defeated 51-49. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voted against the bill procedurally so that it could be debated later.
Then, on this one item, Schumer proposed a rule change that would allow for a “talking filibuster.” Rather than the existing practice of senators discreetly signaling their objections, it would compel senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before taking a simple majority vote.
But it, too, failed when Manchin and Sinema refused to modify Senate rules on a party-line vote by Democrats.
During the floor argument, there were a lot of emotions on exhibit.
When Illinois Senator Dick Durbin asked Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky if he would pause for a question, McConnell walked out of the room, refusing to answer.
“Does he honestly feel there’s no evidence of voting suppression?” Durbin claimed he would have questioned McConnell.
“I am not a racist,” claimed No. 2 Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota at one point.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, McConnell led his party in eliminating the filibuster’s 60-vote barrier for Supreme Court nominations, but he warned against altering the rules again.
McConnell mocked Democrats’ “false anxiety” over new voting regulations in their states, calling the forthcoming bill a federal takeover of electoral systems. In a furious address, Obama chastised Democrats, saying that repealing the filibuster would “destroy the Senate.”
Manchin’s statement brought a slew of senators, upstaged the president’s press conference, and defended the filibuster. He claimed that switching to a majority-rule Senate would exacerbate the “dysfunction ripping this country apart.”
For the proceedings, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus marched across the Capitol. “We want the Senate to take action today in a positive way. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, stated, “But if it doesn’t, we ain’t giving up.”
Manchin did, however, open the door to a more customized set of voting law amendments, including the Electoral Count Act, which was put to the test during the Capitol insurgency on Jan. 6, 2021. Senators from both parties are working on it, he added, and it has the potential to get Republican support.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said a bipartisan coalition should work on legislation to maintain voter access, especially in remote locations such as her state, and to restore Americans’ trust in democracy.
“We don’t need, we don’t need a replay of 2020,” Murkowski said. “By all accounts, our former president wanted to modify the results after losing the election.”
“You’re either a racist or a hypocrite,” she remarked of the Senate discussion, which had devolved into a worrying condition. Seriously, seriously? “Is this where we’re at?”
Senators erupted in applause at one point following a robust argument over the history of the Voting Rights Act between Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and freshman Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., among the more experienced members.
Sinema sat in her chair for the most of the discussion, her phone plastered to her face, but she up to give her vote against the rule change.
Sinema said the decision “must not be the end of our fight to preserve our democracy” in a statement. “These difficulties cannot be handled by one party or Washington alone,” she said.
Schumer insisted that the struggle is far from done, mocking Republican assertions that new voting regulations in states would not impede voter access or turnout, equating it to Trump’s “great lie” regarding the 2020 presidential election.
As Biden enters his first year in office, his initiatives have stalled in the face of strong Republican opposition and the Democrats’ failure to coalesce around their own aims, Democrats have opted to go on despite the risk of a high-stakes loss. They urged senators — including their own party’s dissenters — to go on the record and show people where they stood.
Biden, who was formerly hesitant to modify Senate rules, has increased his pressure on senators to do so. However, the White House’s drive, which included Vice President Joe Biden’s fiery address in Atlanta last week equating opponents to segregationists, is perceived as too late.