Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill

Senate Democrats failed to change the legislative filibuster for a voting bill on Wednesday night, after Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) voted with Republicans to oppose the rules reform, handing President Biden and the party a stinging defeat. 

Senators voted 52-48 to defeat the rules change, which would have nixed the 60-vote hurdle for the election bill. To have been successful, Democrats would need total unity from all 50 of their members, plus Vice President Harris to break a tie.

The outcome of the vote was telegraphed, but it marks a defeat of Democrats’ months-long push to pass voting rights legislation, even if it meant changing the rules so they could do it alone. 

Even as the effort appeared poised to fall short, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) poured time and political capital into the fight.

Biden went to Georgia earlier this month to urge Senate Democrats to pass voting rights legislation, and change the Senate’s rules if necessary, and made a similar pitch to the caucus during a closed-door meeting last week. 

In a statement after the vote, Biden said that he was “profoundly disappointed” in the Senate. 

Schumer has talked up the issue both on the Senate floor, during a blitz of TV appearances and back in New York this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. Democrats were under pressure to hold the vote, regardless of the outcome, to show that they were all-in on voting rights.

Schumer made a final plea to his own party after Republicans blocked a voting bill on Wednesday night that would have combined the Freedom to Vote Act, which overhauls elections and campaign finance laws, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would expand and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

“The only choice to move forward on these vital issues is to change the rules in the modest way we have proposed. My colleagues, history is watching us. Let us choose in favor of our democracy,” Schumer said. 

Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) fumed over the attempted rules change accusing Democrats of trying to “break the Senate.” 

“The Senate will be saved tonight. America can breathe a sigh of relief. This radicalism will have been stopped and it’s a good day for America,” McConnell said.

Under the rules change proposal, Democrats would have gotten rid of the 60-vote hurdle currently required for most legislation, but only for the voting rights bill. Instead, opponents could delay the election legislation by holding the floor but after that it could pass by a simple majority. 

Schumer picked up support for the proposal, which he announced on Tuesday night, throughout Wednesday. 

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who had previously said he would study the issue, announced on Wednesday morning that he would support the rules change proposal. 

“If campaign finance and voting rights reforms are blocked again this week, I will support the proposed changes to pass them with a majority vote. Protecting the vote-by-mail system used by a majority of Arizonans and getting dark money out of our elections is too important to let fall victim to Washington dysfunction,” Kelly said in a statement.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who hasn’t yet committed to using the nuclear option to change the rules, said that he would “embrace a change that is as narrow and temporary as possible and will restore debate on the floor.”

Democratic senators involved in the negotiations say they went with a narrower proposal in an effort to shore up support. 

“He’s narrowing it down even more hopefully to satisfy some folks,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), referring to Schumer. 

But that still left them unable to move forward because of opposition from Manchin and Sinema — the two that have long been viewed as the biggest hurdles within the caucus. 

Manchin reiterated his position just hours before the failed rules change vote, and chided Democrats for trying to “break the rules to change the rules.”

“For the last year, my Democratic colleagues have taken to the Senate floor, cable news airwaves, pages of newspapers across the country, and to argue that repealing the filibuster is restoring the vision the founding fathers intended for this deliberate body. My friends, that is simply not true. It’s not true,” Manchin said.

Minutes before they voted, he also pressed Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on the Senate floor about why they couldn’t do a talking filibuster without the rules change. Merkley, however, said there were concerns that you wouldn’t be able to get to a final vote without a formal vote to bypass needing 60 votes. 

Sinema, in a statement after the vote, reiterated her support for the voting rights legislation but that she “also maintained my longstanding opposition to separate actions that would deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty and further eroding confidence in our government.”  

“Tonight … should not be the end of our efforts to make the Senate work better. Senators of both parties have offered ideas — including some that would earn my support — to make this body more productive, more deliberative, and more responsive to Americans’ needs,” she added. 

The opposition sparked tensions among Democrats, with outside progressive groups and some of their colleagues opening the door to supporting a primary challenge. Both Manchin and Sinema are up for reelection in 2024. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), asked about the likelihood of Manchin and Sinema being challenged by other Democrats, indicated he thinks “there’s a very good chance” of that happening, though he observed “it’s up to the people of those states.” 

Asked if he would be open to supporting a challenger, Sanders answered bluntly: “Yeah, I would.” 

Manchin, however, brushed off the threat of a primary challenge, saying, “Bring it on.”

“I’ve been primaried my entire life. That would not be anything new for me,” he said. 

Democrats are expected to pivot away from the voting rights push and the filibuster discussions as they are trying to revive a slimmed down Build Back Better bill and looking for potential areas of bipartisanship including potential Russia sanctions or funding the government.

Filibuster reform advocates, however, predicted that rules changes will get through the Senate — eventually. 

“Despite this setback, it has never been clearer that the filibuster is a dead rule walking,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Fix Our Senate. “Forty-eight Senate Democrats support reform. President Biden, a long-time supporter of the filibuster, now supports reform. Every Democrat running for Senate, from moderates to progressives, supports reform.”

Updated: 11:12 p.m.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Coons Chuck Schumer Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Mitch McConnell Tim Kaine

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