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Moral March on Manchin and McConnell

Demonstrators gather for Poor People's Campaign's Moral March on Manchin and McConnell, calling on them to eliminate the legislative filibuster and pass the "For the People" voting rights bill, in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 2021. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Filibuster Only Obstacle After Senate Democrats Unveil New Voting Rights Bill

As Sen. Joe Manchin tries to build GOP support for the proposal, progressives call for "removing the filibuster from the Senate Republicans' obstructionist toolbox."

Jessica Corbett

As Senate Democrats on Tuesday announced a compromise voting rights bill backed by the entire caucus, advocates of election reform were quick to press Sen. Joe Manchin—who was part of the negotiations after opposing a previous broader proposal—to drop his resistance to reforming or abolishing the filibuster.

"It's time for our senators to put Americans' freedom to vote ahead of the Jim Crow filibuster."
—Sean Eldridge, Stand Up America

The new Freedom to Vote Act retains parts of the House-approved For the People Act, which Manchin (D-W.Va.) refused to co-sponsor and Senate Republicans repeatedly blocked this summer—elevating calls to change the chamber's rules to advance the agenda of Democrats, who have the narrowest possible majority with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking tie votes.

Manchin is a vocal opponent of killing the filibuster and continues to make a case for bipartisanship, even as the GOP actively works against his party and President Joe Biden's policy priorities. The West Virginia Democrat and other holdouts such as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) face significant pressure from both grassroots organizers and congressional Democrats to reconsider their position on overhauling Senate rules.

"The introduction of the Freedom to Vote Act is a clear sign that the American public's push for federal legislation to protect voting rights is working," declared Sean Eldridge, president of the progressive advocacy group Stand Up America. "Lawmakers are hearing us, loud and clear."

"Now that it appears that all 50 Democrats are on board with a bill to protect our freedom to vote," he added, "it's time to get all 50 Democrats on board with reforming the filibuster to get it passed."

The new Democratic proposal follows a wave of GOP attacks in the wake of the 2020 election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, over 400 bills to restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states this year, and at least 18 states have enacted 30 such laws.

"This is an historic opportunity to pass national standards for voting access and push back against the wave of Republican voter suppression across the country," Eldridge said. "Now, with a compromise bill ready to be passed, the filibuster is the only thing standing in our way. It's time for our senators to put Americans' freedom to vote ahead of the Jim Crow filibuster."

Robert Weissman, president of the group Public Citizen, agreed that Senate rules must not prevent Democrats from combating Republican attempts to block access to the ballot box.

"The toxic stew of voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, super-rich domination of elections, and utter fabrications about the election process and results has created a full-blown emergency for our democracy," Weissman warned. "We have to act now or risk seeing our flawed democracy replaced by authoritarianism. That's how stark things are."

"Whatever institutional interest there may be in preserving the filibuster must give way to the imperative of protecting, preserving, and advancing our democracy."
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen

Framing the new bill as "the pathway forward," particularly given Manchin's support, Weissman said that "all the better if Manchin can quickly find 10 Republicans to join this bill and win its passage. But if Republicans continue to stonewall desperately needed measures to protect our democracy, then Democrats must move immediately to adopt a workaround to the filibuster."

"America can wait no longer," he added. "The stakes are too high. Whatever institutional interest there may be in preserving the filibuster must give way to the imperative of protecting, preserving, and advancing our democracy. The Senate must immediately pass this bill."

Celebrating the "transformative bill," Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, concurred that "after months of delay and repeated attacks on the freedom to vote, the American people cannot wait any longer."

Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn said that "every voter should call both of their U.S. senators now to say, 'get the job done, protect the freedom to vote for the people.'"

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking on the chamber's floor Tuesday, highlighted GOP opposition to the For the People Act and acknowledged those who negotiated the Freedom to Vote Act—along with Manchin, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (D-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

While Schumer vowed to hold a vote as early as next week and emphasized aspects of the bill, The New York Times noted that it "drops some contentious elements of that initial bill such as restructuring the Federal Election Commission" and "would set a national voter identification standard—something that many Democrats have vehemently opposed—but one that would be far less onerous than some states have attempted to impose, allowing voters to meet the requirement with a variety of identification cards and documents in paper and digital form."

Schumer also confirmed that "Manchin is working with Republicans to secure support for the bill," and said that "we look forward to hearing what changes they might make on legislation."

Fix Our Senate, a coalition of over 80 groups working to ensure the filibuster does not block progress, was less optimistic about Republican involvement, and urged Schumer and Biden to do whatever is necessary to stop Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnnell (R-Ky.) "from abusing Senate rules to prevent this bill from getting a fair up-or-down vote."

"People across the country are looking to President Biden and Senate Democrats to get this bill through the Senate and protect our democracy, not the outdated and abused Senate filibuster," the coalition said.

Greenpeace USA democracy campaign director Folabi Olagbaju said the bill "has not come a moment too soon" and similarly asserted that "the Senate must act swiftly and President Biden must use every lever of power and influence at his disposal to get this done."

"Unless we see a miraculous change of heart from 10 Senate Republicans, they are going to use the filibuster to kill this bill—just like they did with the For the People Act. Twice."
—Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Indivisible

Recalling when the Senate GOP opposed legislation establishing an independent commission to probe the January 6 insurrection, Olagbaju added that "we cannot let the handful of senators who tried to block an investigation into a deadly attack on our Capitol use the same filibuster loophole to block legislation that the majority of Americans across the political spectrum have demanded to protect our freedom to vote."

Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Indivisible's director of democracy policy, also welcomed the Freedom to Vote Act while warning that "we can't truly celebrate until we hear what the plan is to get this bill passed through the Senate with zero support from Republicans."

"Unless we see a miraculous change of heart from 10 Senate Republicans," Hatcher-Mays predicted, "they are going to use the filibuster to kill this bill—just like they did with the For the People Act. Twice."

"Senate Democrats know how important this bill is because they've heard about it from their constituents, but all this negotiating will be for absolutely nothing if they don't also take the steps required to get it to President Biden's desk," she added. "That means reforming the Senate rules and removing the filibuster from the Senate Republicans' obstructionist toolbox. Senate Democrats got it together. Now, they need to get it done."

While Biden, a former senator, has publicly opposed scrapping the filibuster, he has signaled support for reform. Rolling Stone reported Sunday that multiple sources briefed on the White House position claim the president assured Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) he was ready to push for such action, and said to the Senate leader, "Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls."

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