Politico

Senate GOP blocks latest Dem push for voting reform


Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a fourth Democratic attempt to begin considering elections and voting legislation on the floor, casting fresh doubt on the majority party’s ability to enact any type of reform this Congress.

In a 50-49 vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined Democrats to move forward on legislation that would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions receive a green light from the Justice Department or a D.C.-based federal court before changing voting laws or procedure.

The Senate tried to take up the bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), after Republicans unanimously blocked Democrats’ separate, sweeping elections and ethics overhaul plan, which the GOP has panned as an effort to federalize elections. Wednesday’s latest GOP blow to voting legislation is likely to renew Democratic calls to move forward without Republicans by changing the Senate filibuster rules.

“This is our fourth, and I think final, attempt to find partners across the aisle who will defend the right of every American to vote,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) “We’ve given it every possible effort over now five months, four different strategies. It’s not going to happen, so we’re going to have to do it with 50 members. And we’re going to have to sit down and decide how we’re going to do it.”

That’s not necessarily the conclusion Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), is coming to, after extensive outreach to the other side of the aisle on voting. “We’ve got Lisa Murkowski, we just need nine more,” Manchin said. “We need other people to be talking to each other and find a pathway forward. It can’t just be one or two people talking to both sides.”

The Lewis bill vote is perhaps the starkest example of the filibuster’s status as the key obstacle to Democrats’ hopes of passing a new elections measure after a flurry of state-level laws they say are designed to restrict ballot access. The Lewis legislation at its core restores a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that would re-establish so-called “preclearance” requirements for jurisdictions with a history of discrimination.

Those requirements were effectively neutered by a Supreme Court decision in 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, for relying on what the high court ruled was an outdated formula to determine which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance requirements. But before the Supreme Court ruling, the core provisions of the Voting Rights Act had been renewed several times over the preceding decades, including a 25-year extension approved by a 98-0 Senate vote in 2006.

That sort of large bipartisan approval will not come this year, with Republicans nearly universally united against the Lewis bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ahead of the vote described the legislation as a Democratic “power grab” that would “let Attorney General [Merrick] Garland dictate voting procedures.”

“The Voting Rights Act is still in effect,” McConnell said. “The courts haven’t struck down that law. It’s simply false to suggest otherwise. The Supreme Court simply ruled that there was no evidence supporting the continuation of 40-year-old practices that were designed in the mid-1960’s.”

Wednesday’s vote comes after Murkowski reached a compromise with Manchin and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on the language for the bill. (Majority Leader Chuck Schumer voted against the bill for procedural reasons, thus reserving himself the right to call it up again.)

But Murkowski said that while the changes were “helpful,” they’re not sufficient to convince most of her Republican colleagues.

“They’re not enough to get more Republicans on to allow it to be this bipartisan bill, so I’ve got some work to do,” Murkowski said in an interview. “I accept that … I need to keep up my level of engagement with the colleagues that we’ve been working with, but also to try to do more one-on-one with Republican colleagues.”

Liberal activists have continued to beat the drum about eliminating or modifying the filibuster so Democrats can pass voting rights legislation. On Wednesday, a handful were arrested protesting outside the White House, in what has now become a fairly regular occurrence.

While progressives widely viewed Democrats’ other elections and ethics reform as the vehicle to kill the filibuster, there’s no sign that Manchin or his colleague Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will relax their opposition to scrapping the 60-vote threshold required to quash a minority-party blockade of most bills in the upper chamber. And Manchin has already indicated he does not support a carve-out just for voting.

Following the failed vote, Schumer said that Democrats “will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward, even if it means going at it alone.” Earlier in the day, Schumer huddled with Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) about having “family discussions” with their colleagues about how to “restore the Senate” and pass the legislation.

“We need two people to change their minds,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “At least two Democrats need to change their minds on the filibuster.”

The latest machinations on Capitol Hill also come at a tenuous time for election reformers in a Democratic bastion: New York. On Tuesday, New Yorkers voted on a pair of state propositions that would have cleared the way for permanent no-excuse absentee voting in the state and same-day voter registration. Both are core tenants of Democrats’ broader stalled elections bill, the Freedom to Vote Act.

Yet both appear headed for a defeat in the Empire State and are trailing significantly in the votes counted so far. While the yet-to-be-tallied absentee votes are expected to close that gap, the growing assumption in the state is that they will ultimately fail.

While Democrats praised Murkowski for supporting Wednesday’s Lewis bill, most view her as an exception.

“We’re not getting anybody except Lisa,” Kaine said. “We got to talk with each other, but there’s no stone that’s been left unturned in the effort to try to find Republican votes.”

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