An effort by congressional Democrats to rewrite U.S. election and voting laws stalled in the Senate Tuesday, blocked by a wall of Republican opposition.
The bill, known as the For the People Act, represented a breathtaking federal infringement on states’ authority to conduct their own elections without fraud — and one meant to ultimately benefit Democrats, Republicans have argued.
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 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.”
Before the vote, President Biden tweeted, “Democrats are united and committed to passing this landmark legislation to protect voting rights, ensure the integrity of our elections and repair and strengthen our democracy.”
Whatever Democrats decide, they will likely be confronted with the same challenge they faced Tuesday when minority Republicans used the filibuster — the same tool that Democrats employed during Donald Trump’s presidency — to block consideration of the bill.
Republicans showed no sign of yielding.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the bill a “a solution looking for a problem” and vowed to “put an end to it.”
Pressure has been mounting on Democrats to change Senate rules or watch their priorities languish. A group of moderate Democratic senators, however, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have ruled that out, denying the votes needed to make a filibuster change.
Biden has vowed what the White House calls the “fight of his presidency” over ensuring Americans’ access to voting. But without changes to Senate rules, key planks of his agenda, including the voting bill, appear stalled.
As the Senate discussion 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.
They also want to limit the ability of state officials to remove local election officials. Georgia Republicans passed a 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.
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 measure.
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.