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Fight over filibuster heats up as Democrats and Republicans clash over voting rights

Matthew Brown, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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WASHINGTON – The debate over the future of the Senate's legislative filibuster is heating up as lawmakers consider Democratic legislation that could determine the future of voting rights in the nation.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday that passage of the For The People Act, often referred to by its House designation H.R.1, was a moral imperative for Democrats.

"I think that we have to pass voting rights no matter what," Warnock said when asked if he thought the filibuster and its 60-vote threshold had to be eliminated to get the bill passed.

Warnock said he would prefer to win the support of Senate Republicans but indicated that if Democrats could not get enough of them on board, the filibuster would have to go. "The ball is in their court," he said.

"If we don't do anything else in the Senate, we have to stand up for democracy," Warnock urged. "The filibuster at the end of the day is about minority rights in the Senate. How are you going to insist on protecting minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society?"

But getting Republicans to back the legislation could be difficult.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared on "Fox News Sunday" that the Democrats' bill, which they say is meant to expand access to voting nationally, "is the biggest power grab in the history of the country."

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Graham said the For The People Act, which has passed the House and is now before the Senate, is cover for a "liberal agenda" that Democrats will seek to pass by evoking the "racism card" in their arguments for the legislation. He said the law "institutionalizes ballot harvesting," removes "the voter ID requirement, limits state autonomy" and "makes the Federal Election Commission a partisan commission."

Voting rights have become increasingly central to the Democratic Party's political platform over the past few years as activists have pressed lawmakers to take tougher stands on civil rights issues. As false claims of widespread voter fraud spread among conservatives during and after the 2020 election, calls to restrict voting access have gained support on the political right.

The Senate debate over the For The People Act comes as Republican states around the country have begun enacting laws that would greatly increase the requirements to vote and curtail the situations in which a voter can cast their ballot.

The bills, which many argue will greatly limit access to voting and disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, are galvanizing national Democrats and civil rights activists to move against what they see as the imposition of "a new Jim Crow era."

"It is disconcerting that here we are again, fighting for what's basic, but we will not be worn down. We intend to stand up to this moment," Warnock said of a sweeping voting law passed in Georgia that adds more stringent requirements to voter registration and restricts the hours of operation for polling sites.

"We cannot allow politicians to silence the people," Warnock stressed.

Republicans have been skeptical of claims of widespread voter suppression, arguing the measures in the bill are necessary to curtail fraud.

"There is a completely false narrative about so-called voter suppression. You look at the Georgia law, there's no voter suppression," Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told NBC News' "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

"Sunday voting is still allowed, there's an expansion of in-person voting – there's no requirement that you have a reason for a mail-in ballot," the senator said, noting that to vote "all you need is some verification of I.D."

Graham celebrated the Georgia law and its limits on ballot drop boxes, saying such a change was needed after "an explosion of mail-in balloting" in the 2020 election. But when asked about a provision in the Georgia bill that makes it illegal to hand out food and water to people waiting in line to vote, a common practice among voting rights activists, Graham said "Well all I can say is, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

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Voting rights are not the only policy issue spurring activist calls for changes to the filibuster. Gun control organizations, environmental activists and labor unions have all taken aim at the Senate rule as an obstacle to passing their respective priorities.

Republicans cautioning against abolishing the filibuster are quick to point out that when they were in the minority, Democrats frequently used the filibuster to stall Republican legislative priorities.

"Some of our Democratic colleagues are simply making a shameful attempt to really ruin what remains of the functioning of the Senate. And it’ll do long-term damage to the country," Toomey said.

"You know, two years ago, the Democrats pretty much universally supported keeping the filibuster. Barack Obama was in favor of the filibuster. Now, when the different party is in control and suddenly it's become a racist tool. How ridiculous," the senator said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned of a "scorched earth" Senate where Republicans would use every available rule to jam governance should Democrats eliminate the filibuster. "This chaos would be like a 100-car pileup, nothing moving," McConnell said in a March 16 floor speech.

Democrats, however, have accused Republicans of abusing the filibuster rule to block nearly everything in the chamber. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a March 16 floor speech that the filibuster was "making a mockery of American democracy" and that the rule is currently "misused by some senators to block legislation urgently needed and supported by strong majorities of the American people."

The issue of voting rights is poised to force a confrontation over the Senate filibuster rule, which effectively requires a supermajority to pass most legislation in the Senate, something many Democrats now see as unacceptable.

"If we have to, if there's complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we'll have to go beyond what I'm talking about," President Joe Biden said during his first press conference Thursday. Biden also agreed with former President Barack Obama's assessment that the filibuster was a "Jim Crow relic" meant to stop civil rights legislation, but did not call for its abolition.

"Successful electoral politics is the art of the possible. Let's figure out how to get this done and significantly change the abuse of the filibuster rule,” the president said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reiterated on "Fox News Sunday" that Biden thought the filibuster had been abused in recent years and that the president is amenable to reforming it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has told reporters Thursday that "everything is on the table" and "failure is not an option" in passing not just voting rights but the Democrats' entire legislative package.

"This is not the usual political argument. This goes to the core of our democracy," Schumer said in a floor speech Wednesday about the importance of the passing voting rights legislation.

The fate of the filibuster rests largely in the hands of moderate Democratic senators, like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who said at the start of the legislative session they would not vote to eliminate the rule.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Filibuster fights heats up as senators clash over voting rights bill