WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers will mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday having come up short on a promise to vote on a Senate rule change aimed at ushering through a voting rights bill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Thursday the Senate will not take up House-passed voting rights legislation until Tuesday, breaking his deadline to vote on a rule change by the federal holiday honoring the late civil rights leader.
The New York Democrat cited a weekend winter storm and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz’s positive COVID-19 diagnosis for the delay in the vote. Without Schatz, Democrats don’t have the 50 votes needed for a simple majority vote.
Though Schumer remains committed to bringing the legislation to a vote, the passage of a voting rights bill remains stymied by Republican opposition and Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who stand opposed to changing the Senate’s rules to pass the law without GOP support.
The upcoming vote comes after President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful effort on Capitol Hill to persuade Senate Democrats to pass a voting rights bill – and a week in which he traveled to Atlanta and gave a speech pushing lawmakers to lift the legislative hurdle that has allowed Republicans to stall much of his agenda: the filibuster.
On Thursday the president suggested he could come up empty-handed.
“I hope we can get this done. The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said after his meeting on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, House Democrats say they won’t give up on passing a federal voting rights bill, which Democrats see as necessary to counteract election laws in GOP-led states that they say are restrictive. They have continued to press their Senate counterparts to pass voting legislation, despite the uphill climb it faces.
In a letter to colleagues Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote, “We cannot and we will not rest until this legislation is enacted into law.”
“The Senate must do its part to advance this legislation. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake,” Pelosi said.
The House passed a bill Thursday morning that combined two pieces of voting rights legislation, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, and has now been sent to the Senate.
The Freedom to Vote Act sets minimum federal requirements for early voting and mail-in voting, while the John Lewis Voting Rights Act restores the Justice Department’s oversight of election law changes in states that have a history of discrimination.
Republicans have accused Democrats of trying to pass a federal election bill that benefits them.
“It isn’t about ‘voting rights,’” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in December, “it’s a naked power grab.”
At the heart of the voting rights talks is the filibuster, a 60-vote threshold needed to bring bills up for debate. Biden and most Democrats want to make an exception to the filibuster to allow a voting rights bill to pass with a majority vote, but without Manchin and Sinema, they don’t have the support to change the rules.
Congressional Black Caucus members publicly called on the Senate to alter the filibuster during a press conference Wednesday.
“We are calling on the Senate to vote. We’re calling on the Senate to have that debate because we want to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. We want to pass the Freedom to Vote Act,” said CBC chair Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio.
“It makes me emotional, when I think of as a Black woman I must stand here today before you asking us to do something that the past five presidents have done, and four white Republican presidents, reauthorize the Voting Rights Act,” Beatty added.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. said both voting rights bills must pass “by any means necessary” and supported “reforming a filibuster rule that is dripping in racist history.”
“There can be no celebration without liberation, without freedom, without the right to vote. As we prepare to observe the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, let us remember that justice delayed can be justice denied. The time to act is now,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., the lawmaker who authored the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
But not all supporters of the voting bill remain positive.
Civil rights leaders said Biden’s speech in Atlanta was too late; the president should have already been on Capitol Hill working on deals to pass a voting rights bill.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the GALEO Impact Fund, Inc., a Latino civic engagement organization in Georgia, said Biden touted his years of experience in the Senate and how he was able to get things done during his presidential campaign.
“He knows the Senate. He knows the institution. He was there when the deals were made associated with the Affordable Care Act. Deals need to be made,’’ said Gonzalez in a call with reporters Wednesday. “Carrots and sticks need to be utilized. We need the full force of the presidency to ensure he can be able to fulfill his agenda, including holding his friends accountable within the party.”
Kendra Cotton, chief operating officer of Stacey Abrams’s voting rights organization, the New Georgia Project, agreed.
“It is not for us on this call to tell him how to get this done,’’ she said. “He told us that’s what he knew how to do. And all we’re asking is for him to deliver. That’s it…It’s like, sir, please tell us how you’re going to get this done.”
Republican opposition to changing the filibuster means Schumer will not have the 60 votes needed to start debate on the bill.
Sinema reiterated her opposition to changing the filibuster during a surprise floor speech less than an hour before Biden met with the lawmakers Thursday.
“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come,” said the Arizona Democrat.
After Biden’s meeting, Manchin once again stated he wouldn’t agree to carving out a filibuster exception for voting rights, saying in a statement, “As I have said before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”
Biden met with Manchin and Sinema Thursday evening. But neither of the two Democrats has publicly changed their stance.
Contributing: Deborah Berry