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Voting rights legislation fails to overcome filibuster despite rule change attempt

Legislation that would create new federal guidelines for mail-in and early voting and end partisan gerrymandering failed to overcome a filibuster from Republicans Wednesday night, despite a last-ditch attempt by Democrats to alter the Senate's rules to push through the legislation, a maneuver that failed.

The Senate voted down party lines to end debate on legislation that included two voting rights proposals: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and get to a vote on the legislation itself.

In a final attempt to turn the legislation into law, Democrats held a vote in the Senate to change the rules of the filibuster, but lacked the votes to make this change thanks to two defections within the party.

The proposal, led by Senate Majority Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, suggested a “talking filibuster” on voting rights that would have required opponents to the legislation to physically hold the floor to delay a vote on whether to pass the policies.

The failed rule change proposed that once the minority stopped their speeches of opposition, the chamber would have been able to move on to a final vote requiring only 50 votes for passage, as opposed to the 60 required to overcome a typical filibuster.

But making this rule change requires 50 votes, and two Democrats, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, opposed altering the filibuster to pass voting rights.

"This is an unwritten rule and it’s the greatest one we have: it’s the rule of self-restraint, which we have very little of anymore. Self-restraint. The rule will be broken along with the cloture rule if the nuclear option is executed, and for that, I cannot be a party to that," Manchin said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

While both Manchin and Sinema supported the voting rights legislation, they both said altering the rules of the chamber to get it passed would have been a step too far.

“We don’t have to change the rules to make the case to the American people about voting rights,” Manchin said, calling for the chamber to keep working on reaching a consensus instead of changing its rules.

Several top Democratic donors, including Emily's List and NARAL, an abortion rights advocacy organization, have said they will not support senators who keep the filibuster intact at the expense of voting rights legislation.

The polices would have made Election Day a federal holiday, ending partisan gerrymandering, and revive a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act previously shot down by the Supreme Court that requires federal approval of changes to voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.

Democrats had painted passing the legislation as a moral imperative key to protecting American democracy as GOP-led state legislatures pass restrictions on voting.

"Laws passed in legislatures throughout the country do nothing less than to discourage and prevent certain kinds of Americans, Black and brown Americans, young Americans, elderly Americans, low-income Americans, from participating in the democratic process," Schumer said Wednesday.

Republicans have largely condemned the legislation and Democrats' push to change the rules as a partisan power grab infringing on the authority of states.

“This party-line push has never been about securing citizens’ rights. It’s about expanding politicians’ power," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

McConnell described the attempted rule change as an endeavor set to "break the Senate."

“The legislative filibuster is a central Senate tradition. It is the indispensable feature of our institution. It makes the Senate serve its founding purpose: forging compromise, cooling passions and ensuring that new laws earn broad support from a cross-section of our country," McConnell said.

Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, a state where local laws regulating elections and voting have become cause for national debate, pushed back against arguments by Republicans that the attempted rule change was out of line.

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“I believe in bipartisanship. But when it comes to voting rights, I have to ask: ‘Bipartisanship at what cost? Who is being asked to foot the bill for this bipartisanship?’” Warnock said,. “I submit that that’s a cost too high. A bridge too far.”

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Arkansas supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but opposed changing the Senate's rules, warning that the country is headed into a downward spiral in which both sides question legitimacy of future elections.

“Both sides are set to cast doubt on elections if they don’t win, and that takes us to a very troubling place," Murkowski said. "Because when people doubt whether their vote matters, when they doubt whether that individual who is sitting in the White House was freely and fairly elected, they will doubt all decisions. They will doubt what we do here and they will doubt their own democracy."

President Joe Biden did express concerns during a press conference Wednesday about the fairness of the next election if Congress fails to pass federal protections on when and how people can vote.

"I think it would easily be illegitimate," Biden told reporters. "The increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is in proportion to not being able to get these reforms passed."

Biden also said that some election reforms may still have a chance at making it out of Congress.

"I predict that we'll get something done on the electoral reform side of this," Biden said.

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Cameron Smith/White House

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was one of two Democrats who opposed altering the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.

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