WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The Democrats’ sweeping attempt to rewrite U.S. election and voting law stalled in the Senate Tuesday, blocked by a wall of Republican opposition to what would have been the largest overhaul of the electoral system in a generation.
President Joe Biden called the Republican opposition, “the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression—another attack on voting rights that is sadly not unprecedented.”
The far-reaching proposal, at nearly 900 pages, is viewed by backers as the civil rights issue of the era, legislation that is suddenly of the highest priority after the 2020 election as states impose restrictive new laws that could make it more difficult to vote.
But many in the GOP say the measure represents a breathtaking federal infringement on states’ authority to conduct their own elections without fraud — and one meant to ultimately benefit Democrats.
It failed on a 50-50 vote after Republicans, some of whom derided the bill as the “Screw the People Act,” denied Democrats the 60 votes needed to begin debate. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold her office, presided over the chamber as the bill failed.
The rejection forces Democrats to reckon with what comes next for their top legislative priority in a narrowly divided Senate. They’ve touted the measure as a powerful counterweight to scores of proposals advancing in GOP-controlled statehouses making it more difficult to vote.
“This is a battle for the soul of America,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “We will keep fighting until we succeed.”
Months in the making, Tuesday’s showdown over the For the People Act, as it is called, is hardly the end of the road but the start of long campaign ahead. President Joe Biden has vowed what the White House calls the “fight of his presidency” over ensuring Americans’ access to the polls. At stake is not only election rules that make it easier to vote but also Democrats’ own ability to confront the limits of bipartisanship and decide whether or not the filibuster rules should change.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted the legislation ahead of the debate as a “disastrous proposal” that will get “no quarter” in the Senate.
The party that controls Washington has been preparing for this moment for months, even as lawmakers faced their own internal divisions over the sprawling bill, which would remove hurdles to voting erected in the name of election security, curtail the influence of big money in politics and reduce partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts.
“How does making it a crime to give food or water to voters waiting in long lines at the polls deter voter fraud?” Schumer asked on the Senate floor on Monday. “It has to do with cruelty. It has to do with nastiness. And it has to do with suppressing the vote.”
But Democrats have divisions of their own. Until Tuesday, it wasn’t even clear that they would be united on the vote to bring the bill up for debate. Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia, announced earlier this month that he couldn’t support the bill because it lacked Republican support.
Manchin flipped his vote to a “yes” after Democrats agreed to consider his revised version. His proposal was endorsed by former President Barack Obama and called a “step forward” by Biden’s administration.
Manchin has proposed adding provisions for a national voter ID requirement, which is anathema to many Democrats, and dropping a proposed public financing of campaigns.
Those changes did little, however, to garner the bipartisan support Manchin was hoping for. Senate Republicans said they would likely reject any legislation that expands the federal government’s role in elections. McConnell dismissed Manchin’s version as “equally unacceptable.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Alaska Republican, said some aspects of the Democratic bill were laudable and she supports other voting rights legislation, like a reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.
But, ultimately, she said the “sprawling” bill amounted to “a one-size-fits-all mandate coming out of Washington D.C.” that “in many cases doesn’t work.”
“It will make election more difficult, expensive, subject to federal micromanagement,” Murkowski said.
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Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted the bill is based on one first introduced in the House in 2019, before the 2020 election and its chaotic aftermath.
“They’ve made it abundantly clear that the real driving force behind S-1 is a desire to rig the rules of American elections permanently in Democrats’ favor,” McConnell said. “That’s why the Senate will give this disastrous proposal no quarter.”
The rock-solid opposition from the GOP senators brings to a head questions over the filibuster, the decades-old Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most bills to advance.
While some Democrats want to change the Senate’s rules to push the elections bill and other priorities past the filibuster, Manchin and others including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., are opposed to taking that next move. Biden, too, has said in the past that he wants to leave the filibuster intact.
Pressure to change the rule is mounting, though. For now, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration’s hope is that the chamber’s 50 Democrats are aligned and that an unsuccessful vote will prompt the search for a new path.
Ensuing the bill’s passage is taking on fresh urgency as former President Donald Trump continues to challenge the outcome of the 2020 election and is urging on the new laws in the Republican-led states.
State officials who certified the results of the 2020 election have dismissed Trump’s claims of voter fraud, and judges across the country have dismissed multiple lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies. Trump’s own attorney general said at the time there was no evidence of widespread fraud that would change the outcome.
The changes being enacted in many of the Republican states are decried by voting rights advocates who argue the restrictions will make it more difficult for people to cast ballots, particularly minority residents in cities who tend to support Democrats.
As the Senate action churns, more changes could be coming to the bill.
Democrats want to protect against intimidation at the polls in the aftermath of the 2020 election. They propose enhancing penalties for those who would threaten or intimidate election workers and creating a “buffer zone” between election workers and poll watchers, among other possible changes.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., a lead sponsor of the bill, said the effort underway is to “respond to the growing threat of election subversion in GOP-led states across the country.“
Democrats also want to limit the ability of state officials to remove a local election official without cause. Georgia Republicans passed a state law earlier this year that gives the GOP-dominated legislature greater influence over a state board that regulates elections and empowers it to remove local election officials deemed to be underperforming.
“The dangers of the voter suppression efforts we’re seeing in Georgia and across the nation are not theoretical, and we can’t allow power-hungry state actors to squeeze the people out of their own democracy by overruling the decisions of local election officials,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is working to advance the proposal in the Senate.
You can read the full bill below:
All reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press.