By LISA MASCARO
WASHINGTON (AP) – Voting legislation, which Democrats and civil rights leaders say is crucial to protecting democracy, appeared to be heading for defeat as the Senate entered debate on Tuesday, a devastating setback made possible by President Joe Biden’s own party , as two hold-out senators refuse to support rule changes to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, faced strong criticism from black leaders and civil rights organizations for failing to take on what critics call the “Jim Crow filibuster.”
The debate echoes an earlier era in which Senate filibusters were inserted into lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation. It comes as Democrats and other campaigners across the country warn that Republican-led states are passing laws that make it harder for black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling stations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the likely defeat of the current bill this week. But he said the fight is not over as he listens to advocates’ call to force all senators to go on record with their positions.
“We are not giving up,” Schumer said after a strategy meeting that evening. “It’s a battle for America’s soul and future.”
This is the fifth time the Senate will attempt to pass voting legislation this Congress.
The Freedom to Vote: The John R. Lewis Act combines previous bills into one package that would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and ballot papers – which have become particularly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic – and enable the Department of Justice to to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.
Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the package, which has passed Parliament, but they are reluctant to change Senate rules to get it through the chamber due to Republican objections. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow majority in the Senate – Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie – but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.
Instead, Schumer announced that the Senate will vote on a more specific amendment to the rules for a “speaking filibuster” on this one bill – requiring senators to stand at their desks and argue for their views, rather than current practice that simply allows senators to signal private objections.
The initial voting can begin as early as Wednesday. But even the proposal for a “talking filibuster” is expected to fail, as Manchin and Sinema have said they are not willing to change the rules of a party vote by Democrats alone.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who led his party to do away with the filibuster’s threshold of 60 votes for Supreme Court nominees during Donald Trump’s presidency, warned against changing the rules again. He said Tuesday it would “crack the Senate.”
Democratic senators countered in speeches from the Senate floor that with the Republicans protesting the voting legislation, they have no choice.
Manchin opened the door to a more tailor-made package of changes to the voting law – including the Electoral College Act, which became the focus of the January 6, 2021 uprising in the Capitol – which he said a bipartisan group of senators is working on and could draw on Republican support .
“There are so many things we can agree on,” he said, though he held back from voting to change the filibuster rules.
Just as Manchin and Sinema blocked Biden’s broad “Build Better Back” domestic spending package, the two senators are now hoping for yet another big part of Biden’s presidential agenda. They annoy many of their colleagues and met a barrage of criticism under Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.
Martin Luther King III, son of the late civil rights leader, compared Sinema and Manchin to the white moderates his father wrote about during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s – who declared support for the goals of black suffrage, but not direct actions or demonstrations that eventually led to the adoption of landmark legislation.
“History will not remember them kindly,” said the younger king, referring to Sinema and Manchin by name.
When he himself was reluctant to change Senate rules, Biden used the royal holiday to pressure senators to do just that. But the push from the White House, including Biden’s blistering speech last week in Atlanta, in which he compared opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late as the president ends his first year in office with his popularity declining.
“The president’s view is that the American people deserve to see where their leaders stand to protect their fundamental rights,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
The Senate launched the day-long debate, but the outcome is not expected to be any different from previously unsuccessful votes on the legislation. Biden has not been able to persuade Sinema and Manchin to join other Democrats in changing the rules to lower the threshold by 60 votes. In fact, Sinema elevated the president last week and reiterated his opposition to the rules, just before Biden arrived at Capitol Hill to judge the senators’ votes.
Both senators have argued that it is important to preserve the filibuster rules to promote bipartisanship. They also warn about what would happen if Republicans regain majority control, as is clearly possible in this election year.
McConnell has argued that the broad package now before the Senate is a federal overhaul of state-run elections, and he harshly criticized Biden’s speech last week as “unprecedented.”
Leading sports figures from Manchin’s home state, West Virginia, have also weighed in. In a letter last week, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West and others called on him to support the legislation.
The political group Emily’s List said it would not support Sinema if she could not support a way forward for the voting law.
Before Republicans lowered the voting threshold for Trumps nominees for the Supreme Court, Democrats had similarly dropped it to a simple majority for confirmation of administrative positions and candidates for lower courts. It typically takes a majority of 67 votes to change the party rules, but both were done on party line polls.
The ballot was the Democrats’ top priority this congress, and Parliament quickly approved HR 1 only to see it languish in the Senate.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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