Senate GOP blocks John Lewis voting rights bill

Republicans on Wednesday blocked the Senate from starting debate on a voting rights bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), marking the latest setback for Democrats in their push for new elections legislation. 

Senators voted 50-49 on whether to bring up the bill, falling short of the 60 votes needed to move forward. Vice President Harris presided over part of the vote. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) voted no, a procedural step that lets him bring the bill back up in the future for another vote.

Unlike this year’s previous failed election reform votes, which were on bills that stretched well beyond bolstering the Voting Rights Act, Democrats picked up a GOP supporter: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). 

Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) signed on to a revised version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on Tuesday after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating. 

“Ensuring our elections are fair, accessible and secure is essential to restoring the American people’s faith in our Democracy. That’s why my colleagues and I have come together to introduce the bipartisan John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Manchin said in a statement. 

All Senate Democrats except Manchin introduced the bill in October to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) to strengthen sections that were gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which focused on Section 5 of the VRA and its required Justice Department preclearance before some states could change voting laws, and this year’s Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision, which advocates believe weakened Section 2, which is focused on racially targeted voting policies.

The revised bill that Republicans blocked on Wednesday includes changes such as what factors courts can consider when determining if Section 2 of the VRA has been violated. The bill also drops a requirement for localities with growing minority populations to get preclearance for changes on offering food or drinks to people waiting in line to vote. The change has been included under the earlier version of the bill’s new requirement for “practice-based” preclearance.

Schumer vowed that if Republicans let them start debate on the bill that he would let GOP senators propose and get votes on amendments. Even if Republicans had let the bill come up for debate, they could have blocked it again on the back end, when it has to overcome a second 60-vote hurdle before a final vote.

Schumer thanked Murkowski ahead of the vote, saying that supporting the bill “was not a decision she made lightly” and that she had called him from Alaska to let him know about it. 

“My Democratic colleagues worked hard with her to compromise on a proposal that she could support while still maintaining the basic thrust of their legislation. Just as Democrats in the Senate worked with Sen. Murkowski on legislation to strengthen our democracy, we will work with other Republicans in good faith to improve this legislation, but they must come to the table first,” he said.

“I want to emphasize once again what today’s vote is about. We are not asking any Republican to support specific legislation. Today is about whether or not we will vote to begin debate here in this chamber,” he added. 

But that wasn’t enough to defeat a GOP filibuster. 

“There is nothing to suggest a sprawling federal takeover is necessary. Nationalizing our elections is just a multidecade Democratic Party goal in constant search of a justification,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday ahead of the vote. “The Senate will reject this go-nowhere bill today like we’ve rejected every other piece of fruit from this same poisonous tree.”

Murkowski and Manchin both indicated that they saw the release of the updated bill as the start of negotiations to try to come up with an agreement that could garner enough support to break a filibuster. Murkowski was the only Republican who supported the John Lewis voting legislation in previous Congresses. 

“Every American deserves equal opportunity to participate in our electoral system and political process, and this bill provides a starting point as we seek broader bipartisan consensus on how best to ensure that,” she said.

But the failed vote is also pouring new fuel on calls to overhaul the Senate’s rules in order to advance voting rights. Progressives and a growing number of outside groups support nixing the filibuster or a smaller change to exempt voting legislation from the 60-vote hurdle. 

Democrats have been unable to do either as such a move would require total unity from all 50 of their senators. Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are opposed to nixing the filibuster, and others are viewed as wary. 

But Democratic lawmakers and activists who support filibuster reform argue that it’s the only way to get a slew of legislation, including voting rights, through the Senate. 

“Thankfully, since the last Republican filibuster of voting rights legislation, President Biden has endorsed filibuster reform and injected renewed momentum and urgency into this effort. It’s more clear than ever before that Democrats must choose between keeping the ‘Jim Crow’ filibuster intact or delivering on voting rights legislation before it’s too late,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesperson for Fix Our Senate. 

Tags Charles Schumer elections reform Filibuster filibuster reform Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell voter rights voting rights Voting Rights Act vra

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