Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters ‘dishonor’ MLK’s legacy on voting rights

Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during a news conference in Washington, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had some sharp words Monday for the senators protecting the filibuster amid the voting rights debate, suggesting they are debasing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. just as the country is honoring the civil rights legend.

“If you really, truly want to honor Dr. King, don’t dishonor him by using a congressional custom as an excuse for protecting our democracy,” Pelosi said during a voting rights event at Washington’s Union Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

The Speaker did not name names. But at least two Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — are fiercely opposed to a change in Senate rules that would allow new voting rights protections to clear the upper chamber without any Republican support. Absent that narrow filibuster exemption, the legislation appears doomed when the Senate considers it this week.

Joining Monday with civil rights activists in Washington, including members of King’s family, Pelosi urged the senators to reconsider, arguing that Republican-led state voting restrictions pose a threat to democracy that outweighs adherence to arcane Senate rules, even those designed to promote bipartisanship.

“We all want bipartisanship. We all strive for it [and] we have a responsibility to do so. But when we cannot have it, we cannot confine our democracy to what might be bipartisanly possible,” Pelosi said.

“So I ask our colleagues in the Senate respectfully for what they think the filibuster means … to weigh the equities against our democracy,” she added. “Because nothing less is at stake than our democracy.” 

The comments came on a blustery day of commemoration and activism in Washington, where civil rights proponents, including several generations of King’s family, marched across Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and urged the Senate holdouts to shed their support for the filibuster for the sake of protecting voting rights.

Appearing with Pelosi, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) noted that legislation to fight racial discrimination at the polls has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support for decades — until now.

“The voting rights bill passed five times for reauthorization under four Republican presidents. But now we’re having a problem; a problem called the filibuster,” said Sewell, who represents Selma, Ala., where the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), another civil rights icon, was beaten savagely during a 1965 march for voting rights. 

“We cannot let a process stand in the way.”

The House last week passed voting rights legislation — named after Lewis — that is designed to empower voters at the polls. It includes provisions to make Election Day a national holiday and require every state to offer both early voting and mail-in balloting.

Manchin and Sinema both support the legislation. But defying the entreaties of President Biden, they oppose the elimination of the filibuster that’s allowing Republicans to block it.

In a remarkable floor speech last week, Sinema lamented the Republican efforts to restrict ballot access. But national division, she argued, is an even deeper problem — one that would be made only worse if Democrats scaled back the filibuster.

“These [voting rights] bills help treat the symptoms of the disease, but they do not fully address the disease itself,” Sinema said. “And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”

Such arguments have infuriated members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who view the wave of new state voting restrictions as a thinly veiled effort to disenfranchise minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic. Without congressional action, they warn, those states will undo decades of progress under the Voting Rights Act — changes that could influence outcomes in the coming midterm elections.

“While we no longer have to count how many marbles are in a jar, or recite backwards the Declaration of Independence, today’s modern-day voting suppression is no less pernicious,” said Sewell. “Long lines; purging of rolls; the list goes on and on.”

“We must draw the line in the sand of justice for any member not standing with us on voting rights,” echoed Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the head of the Black Caucus. “They are obstructionists to … America’s promise of freedom and justice. And we must stand against them.”

Tags Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Joyce Beatty Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Terri Sewell

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