Democrats stare down defeat in voting rights push

US Democrats began debate Tuesday on an almost certainly doomed effort to enact sweeping voting rights reforms they argue would protect democracy against threats posed by Republicans.

President Joe Biden is pressing Congress to pass two major bills broadening access to the ballot box, placing more onerous conditions on states attempting to change voting laws and protecting election officials from undue influence.

The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House last week in a package that has majority support among senators. 

But neither has anywhere close to the 60 votes required to pass the 50-50 split upper chamber, with Republicans characterizing the push as a divisive federal power grab.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer canceled the recess following the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend to take up the vote in any case.

“The American people deserve to see their senators go on record on whether they will support these bills or oppose them,” the 71-year-old New Yorker said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Senators will debate the proposal over the next two days, at least, with a vote expected any time from Wednesday. 

Schumer confirmed later at a news conference that, in the near-certain event that the package fails, he will organize a vote on amending the Senate’s filibuster rule — the 60-vote threshold required to pass most bills.

Schumer said the plan would be to reinstate the so-called “talking filibuster” that requires opponents of legislation to physically hold the floor to prevent the Senate from voting.

– ‘Disease of division’ –

Under the proposal, whenever debate is concluded, no matter how long it takes, the legislation can advance with a simple majority vote. 

But the plan appeared dead in the water, as two moderate Democrats have already dealt a death blow to the idea of reducing the 60-vote requirement.

Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema insisted last week she would not back any effort to do away with protections for the minority party.

“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema told the Senate.

West Virginia’s Joe Manchin followed suit, saying in a statement he would not “vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”

Republican-run states across America have spent the last year leveraging defeated former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election to introduce restrictive laws that opponents say are an assault on democracy.

A group of civil rights leaders reportedly attempted to impress upon Sinema in a video call last week that no major voting rights bill could ever win 60 votes in the deeply partisan Senate. 

Sinema continues to maintain however that a filibuster carveout would be bad for the country, and that Republicans could use it in the future to hold a simple-majority vote to undo whatever voting legislation Democrats passed. 

With the push for broad voting rights reform on track to come up short, Democrats have the option of pursuing narrower efforts to safeguard elections.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have signaled support for eliminating ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

Trump demanded that his vice president Mike Pence exploit the poor wording in the legislation to block certification of the 2020 election results — but Pence ultimately declined.

by Frankie TAGGART