Senate Republicans blocked Democrats from moving forward on voting rights legislation, and Democrats failed to get 50 votes to change the Senate rules to move forward with the legislation with a simple majority.
The dramatic night started with the Senate first voting on whether to end debate on the voting rights legislation, a move that failed to get the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer then brought up a vote on a rules change to move the legislation forward with a one-time exemption, which was fiercely opposed by Republicans and two members of his own party, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Democrats' frustration with Manchin and Sinema was apparent, with Senator Bernie Sanders saying after the vote that Manchin and Sinema have "forced us to go through five months of discussions which have gotten absolutely nowhere."
President Joe Biden issued a statement after the votes, saying he was "profoundly disappointed" in the outcome, although he did not place blame on fellow Democrats.
"I am disappointed — but I am not deterred," Mr. Biden said. "My Administration will never stop fighting to ensure that the heart and soul of our democracy — the right to vote — is protected at all costs. We will continue to work with allies to advance necessary legislation to protect the right to vote. And to push for Senate procedural changes that will protect the fundamental right to vote."
Mr. Biden said Vice President Kamala Harris will continue to lead the effort to pass voting rights legislation. After the voting rights bill failed to advance, Harris said in a statement that "Senators voted to preserve an arcane Senate procedure rather than secure that fundamental freedom. The American people will not forget this moment. Neither will history."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was "perhaps the most important day in the history of the Senate" and said that if the Democrats' succeed, they would "break" the Senate.
"Tonight for the first time in history almost an entire political party will write in permanent ink that they would shatter the soul of the Senate for short term power," McConnell said.
Schumer, who changed his vote on voting rights legislation to allow the bills to be reconsidered, needed 51 votes to move forward on the rules. At one point, Manchin asked if the vote could proceed without the rule change, which was denied.
Ahead of the rules change vote to amend the filibuster, Schumer called the proposal "very simple."
"Tonight let us sidestep voting rights no more," Schumer said. "The question before the Senate is how we will find a path forward on protecting our freedoms in this turbulent 21st century. The only choice to move forward on these vital issues is to change the rules in the modest way we have proposed."
The Senate rules change proposed by Democrats would have implemented a "talking filibuster" for the voting rights legislation alone. Under this plan, final passage would require a 51-vote majority, rather than the usual 60, after senators used their opportunities to speak to filibuster the bill.
Earlier Wednesday, Manchin told his colleagues that invoking the so-called nuclear option to eliminate the 60-vote threshold would exacerbate the current political divisions.
"I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country, not to divide our country," he said. "Putting politics and party aside is what we're supposed to do. It's time that we do the hard work to forge the difficult compromises that can stand the test of time."
Manchin delivered his speech alongside a poster that read "The United States Senate has never been able to end debate with a simple majority" and called claims by his Democratic colleagues that eliminating the filibuster would restore the vision the founding fathers intended for the Senate "simply not true."
"Allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel on the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction, and that is tearing this nation apart," he said.
Several Republican senators gathered on the floor to hear Manchin's speech, including McConnell and Minority Whip John Thune.
Earlier Wednesday, Schumer addressed Sinema's and Manchin's opposition and their arguments that the filibuster is used to foster bipartisanship.
"I don't see that evidence, evidence of that at all," Schumer said. "But even for those who feel that the filibuster is a good thing and helps bring us together, I would ask this question: isn't the protection of voting rights, the most fundamental wellspring of this democracy, more important? Isn't protecting voting rights and protecting their diminution more important than a rule in the Senate?"
Manchin and Sinema have remained firm in their defense of the filibuster under intense pressure by some Democratic lawmakers and activist groups. EMILY's List, a group that endorses women politicians who advocate for abortion rights, said that it will not endorse Sinema in future elections if she refuses to support a rules change to pass voting rights legislation.
"We want to make it clear: if Senator Sinema can not support a path forward for the passage of this legislation, we believe she undermines the foundations of our democracy, her own path to victory and also the mission of EMILY's List, and we will be unable to endorse her moving forward," said EMILY's List President Laphonza Butler in a statement.
Wednesday's votes took place just hours after President Biden's first press conference of the year. One of Mr. Biden's signature pieces of legislation, the social spending bill known as Build Back Better, also remains stalled in the Senate because it lacks the support of Manchin and Sinema.
The voting rights legislation includes a wide array of proposals to expand access to the ballot. Some of the proposals include making Election Day a national holiday, creating standards for voter ID and allowing no-excuse absentee voting around the country. It would also create a baseline to allow for early voting for at least 15 days before Election Day and to establish same-day voter registration.
The measure would reinstate a core provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to get approval from the Justice Department before changing their election policies. This section of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
A CBS News poll released Wednesday showed that 68% of Democrats believe it is "very" important to pass voting rights legislation. The poll also displayed that a majority of Democrats believe that the filibuster should end, while 65% of Republicans said that the filibuster should be kept.
Senate Republicans have alleged that the legislation amounts to a "federal takeover" of the elections process. McConnell said Wednesday morning that Schumer's proposed rules change would "destroy" the Senate, arguing that the filibuster is a "central Senate tradition."
"The Senate is not supposed to be a duplicate House of Representatives with fewer members and fancier desks," McConnell added.
[via CBS News]