Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ sweeping elections and ethics reform bill on Tuesday, likely renewing calls from progressives to nix the legislative filibuster.
In a 50-50 vote, the Senate failed to move forward on the legislation, a top priority for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. With the bill guaranteed to fail, the path forward is murky at best on an issue that Democrats say they need to resolve before the 2022 midterms.
During his opening remarks Tuesday, Schumer acknowledged the likely outcome of the vote, which required 60 senators to advance the bill, but framed the issue as an existential fight for democracy. He accused Republicans of suppressing the vote in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
“There is a rot at the center of the modern Republican party,” Schumer said. “Donald Trump’s big lie has spread like a cancer and threatens to envelop one of America’s major political parties. Even worse, it has poisoned our democracy, eroded faith in our elections, which is so detrimental to the future faith people need to have in this democracy.”
Republicans, however, are vehemently opposed, arguing that the bill — which Democrats designated S.1 to signify its importance — would amount to nothing more than the federalization of the U.S. election system.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described the bill Tuesday as “Democrats’ transparent plan to tilt every election in America permanently in their favor.” McConnell also flicked at the push from progressives to can the 60-vote threshold.
“This most sensitive subject would not be the best place to trash the Senate’s rules to ram something through,” he said. “The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten. And that’s exactly why this body exists. Today the Senate’s going to fulfill our founding purpose, stop the partisan power grab and reject S. 1."
While Democrats were unable to move forward, Schumer did secure the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the only Senate Democrat who did not co-sponsor the bill. The unified Democratic vote will both help the party’s political messaging that the GOP is stonewalling them and likely intensify progressives’ push to end the filibuster.
Manchin said Tuesday afternoon that he would vote with the rest of the Democratic caucus to advance the bill. "I’ve found common ground with my Democratic colleagues on a new version of the bill that ensures our elections are fair, accessible and secure," Manchin said in a statement.
Last week, Manchin indicated he supports expanding early voting and ending partisan gerrymandering, but he also wants to institute new voter ID requirements and allow for more flexibility for state officials to remove voters from the voter rolls.
Manchin’s statement said that "the bill has been modified to include voter ID requirements that aim to strengthen the security of our elections" ahead of Tuesday’s vote, but amended text was not immediately available.
"Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy," the West Virginia Democrat continued, saying he remained committed to a "bipartisan pathway" on election reform.
But negotiations over any Manchin-approved substitute appeared to still be ongoing. "I am still working with him on two major issues," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Rules committee and is shepherding the bill through the Senate, told CNN shortly after Manchin’s statement. "One is the voter ID, and the second one is the mail-in ballots.”
Proponents of the bill argue that it’s a necessary response to recent state laws from GOP legislatures that restrict access to the ballot, where were introduced in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Democrats’ legislation would lead to significant changes in how elections are conducted across the country, including provisions to mandate in-person early voting in all states, require that states offer no-excuse absentee voting and institute automatic and same-day voter registration. It would also require that most states establish independent redistricting commissions.
The bill as written also contains sweeping campaign finance and ethics updates, like a public financing system for congressional races, which have often taken a back seat to the elections portions of the law.
The bill remains a potent motivating factor among much of the Democratic base.
Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022, hit his campaign email list to drum up support for the bill earlier on Tuesday. "Chuck is leading the Senate to vote on the For the People Act TODAY — and we want to show him that we have a critical mass of support to protect the right to vote from Republican attacks and pass this historic piece of legislation," the email read, calling the bill essential to "save our democracy."
Schumer has repeatedly vowed "failure is not an option," but the next steps remain unclear. Democrats’ inability to move the bill forward is irritating some liberals, who believe that President Joe Biden and the White House are not doing enough to push it across the finish line. "Our democracy is in crisis and we need @POTUS to act like it," freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) tweeted.
The Office of Management and Budget put out a "statement of administration policy" on Tuesday afternoon ahead of the vote, reiterating that the administration "strongly supports" the Senate passing the bill, writing that "democracy is in peril, here, in America."
Progressives and advocates of election reform have long viewed this fight as a vehicle for killing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and plan on pushing that point now that Tuesday’s vote is behind them.
"The next step is going to be legislators making a decision between protecting our democracy or protecting a made up rule," said Damon Effingham, the director of federal reform at RepresentUs, one such advocacy group with cross-party membership. "That’s the choice. So from here on out, groups like us will be making that choice as stark as possible to the decision makers."
But that’s appearing increasingly unlikely. Both Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are vocal in their support for keeping the filibuster, and they’re not alone.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Sinema published an op-ed in The Washington Post reiterating her position.
“To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act,” Sinema wrote, “I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?"