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Democrats search for path forward on voting rights after Senate bill fails

Democrats regrouping after GOP blocks bill
Democrats regrouping after GOP blocks bill 09:10

Washington — Senate Republicans blocked a sweeping elections and ethics reform bill on Tuesday, dealing a significant blow to Democratic efforts to secure voting rights protections on the federal level. But the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress insist that the fight to pass voting rights legislation is not over.

The bill, known as the For the People Act, failed along party lines in a 50-50 vote, far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. The legislation was Democrats' answer to restrictive voting measures enacted in Republican-led states following the 2020 presidential election. Despite its failure and Republicans' staunch opposition, Democratic leaders say they have several options to move forward with strengthening voting rights.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is leading the Biden administration's efforts on voting rights, said in a statement on Tuesday that "we will not give in, and we will continue the fight to strengthen the right to vote."

"We will fortify and expand the nationwide coalition on voting rights, and promote voter engagement and registration nationwide. We will lift up leaders in the states who are working to stop anti-voter legislation, and work with leaders in Congress to advance federal legislation that will strengthen voting rights," Harris said. "I want to be clear that our Administration remains determined to work with Congress to pass the For The People Act, and we will keep working with Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act."

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Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to members of the media while departing the Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Harris said ahead of a meeting with voting rights activists on Wednesday that "the fact is our fight does not look very different than it did yesterday."

"It's about what we can do to uplift all the voices around stopping legislation that is in process, but also addressing what must happen in those states where legislation has already passed to empower voters, and to navigate the system that has been tampered with," she said.

In a speech on the Senate floor after the vote on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said "the fight to protect voting rights is not over."

"In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line," Schumer said, adding that "it will not be the last time that voting rights comes up for a debate in this Senate." He noted that all 50 Democrats in the Senate voted to advance the bill, saying that it showed the party was "unified." Democratic Senator Joe Manchin announced he would support advancing the legislation just hours ahead of the vote, after some of his suggested changes were added to the bill.

"We have several serious options for how to reconsider this issue and advance legislation to combat voter suppression. We are going to explore every last one of our options," Schumer said. "So we will not let it go. We will not let it die."

President Biden also vowed to fight on in a statement on Tuesday.

"This fight is far from over — far from over," Mr. Biden said. "I've been engaged in this work my whole career, and we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again — for the people, for our very democracy."

Some progressives have pushed for eliminating the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation, which would lower the threshold for advancing legislation from 60 votes to a simple majority. However, some Democrats have expressed an unwillingness to end the filibuster, including Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters on Wednesday that he was not yet ready to support changing filibuster rules to pass voting rights legislation.

"We are still working on a bill with Joe Manchin that scales back some of the items in S1 that were objectionable to the Republicans. I'd still like to find a bill where we can find some consensus," King said. "I think we're going to give them a few more chances to try to solve a problem."

With the filibuster in place, Democrats have the option of breaking the massive For the People Act into smaller bills, some of which may receive sufficient support from Republicans. In a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted against advancing the bill, nevertheless said that she believed it had some "noteworthy goals" and provisions that she "absolutely" would support, such as expanding early voting and making absentee voting and voter registration easier.

Murkowski will also be a sponsor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. That provision required certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to receive approval, known as preclearance, from the federal government before making changes to their voting rules.

But the bill, named for the late congressman and civil rights icon, will likely not be considered until the fall, as the House is still gathering the evidence sufficient to prove that jurisdictions have patterns of voting discrimination. Democrats plan to write and introduce it after that evidence is gathered, and House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said Wednesday that the House will likely vote on the bill this fall.

It is also unclear whether any other Republicans will join Murkowski in supporting the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vehemently opposed it, calling it "unnecessary."

There are also other, smaller bills related to elections that may be considered this year. Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock introduced a bill on Tuesday to strengthen protections for election workers and limit arbitrary removals of election officials. Warnock's bill is a direct response to a controversial voting restrictions law enacted in his state, which includes a provision allowing for election officials to be removed by a state board whose members would be appointed by the Republican-led state legislature.

As of mid-May, state legislators have enacted at least 22 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

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