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Democrats' biggest push for voting rights fails with no Republicans on board

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., led opposition among Republicans to a voting rights bill that centrist Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia hoped to corrall GOP votes for.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., led opposition among Republicans to a voting rights bill that centrist Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia hoped to corrall GOP votes for.

Updated October 20, 2021 at 5:11 PM ET

Senate Democrats' most forceful and perhaps last push for major voting rights legislation this year was blocked by a Republican filibuster on Wednesday afternoon.

The procedural vote to move forward with the Freedom to Vote Act failed despite Democrats' effort to craft a compromise bill led in part by Sen. Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat had hoped to get enough GOP votes to overcome a filibuster, but in the end no Republicans voted to advance the legislation.

Democrats say federal voting legislation is needed to counteract a wave of new restrictions from Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country. Critics of those laws say they are making it more difficult to vote, particularly for people of color.

The Freedom to Vote Act would have, among other things, established Election Day as a national holiday, set national minimum standards for early voting and voting by mail, and created new requirements for groups not currently required to disclose their financial donors. It also included standards for states that require voter identification, something that was a priority of Manchin.

"We're not deterred, but there's still a lot of work to do and I think it's really a sad day," said Vice President Harris after Wednesday's vote.

"We're not going to give up," she said. "We've never given up — those of us who have fought for the right of every American to express their voice through their vote. We're going to continue to do the work."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a vote on the narrower John Lewis bill, meant to restore the Voting Rights Act, will come to the floor as soon as next week.

There have been few signs of movement among Republicans

The Freedom to Vote Act was negotiated by a group of Senate Democrats, including Manchin, who was his party's lone holdout on the sweeping voting rights measure that passed the House earlier this year. Parts of the House-passed bill, called the For the People Act, were scaled back to win over Manchin's support, as well as some Republicans. Manchin played a key role in courting Republican support for the compromise bill in recent weeks.

But Republicans didn't budge.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that it was his "hope and anticipation" that no Republicans would vote for the Freedom to Vote Act, which he described as an attempt by Democratic lawmakers "to have the federal government take over how elections are conducted all over America."

The failed procedural vote on Wednesday is likely to thrust lawmakers into another high-profile fight over whether to change Senate rules to abolish the legislative filibuster, or to carve out an exception for voting rights legislation. But some Democratic senators, including Manchin, have rejected calls to change the filibuster.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said that Wednesday's vote was an opportunity to show that Democrats were united on voting rights legislation.

"We have to very clearly demonstrate to some of our colleagues that we've exhausted every other option," said Van Hollen, who supports eliminating the filibuster. "But patience is not eternal, time is running out."

Frustration and impatience among voting rights activists has grown with Biden

On Tuesday, dozens of activists protested outside the White House, calling on Biden to personally do more, including through increased pressure on members of his own party to change filibuster rules to pave the way for legislation to protect the right to vote.

Voting rights activists demonstrate outside the White House on Tuesday. Many of them have been frustrated that President Biden hasn't more forcefully advocated for voting rights legislation.
Juana Summers / NPR
Voting rights activists demonstrate outside the White House on Tuesday. Many of them have been frustrated that President Biden hasn't more forcefully advocated for voting rights legislation.

The activists have been a regular presence on Pennsylvania Avenue, putting visible pressure on the White House. Most acknowledged that the voting rights legislation had little chance of passage without filibuster changes.

"I think what Joe Biden understands is the filibuster is not written into the Constitution. It is tradition. And tradition evolves and changes," said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, a group aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent. Geevarghese said that if Congress can't find a way to pass voting rights, the consequences could be stark for Democrats.

"If we don't pass the Freedom to Vote legislation, Democrats are going to get slaughtered in 2022 and 2024," he said. "If people can't get to the polls and exercise their right to vote, our power is in jeopardy and that's what this is about."

Other advocates argue voting rights has not been Biden's priority, and that the president has demonstrated more commitment to his infrastructure bill and sweeping social spending package.

"He put an emphasis on the infrastructure bill, he has prioritized that. He has called people into the White House," said Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the League of Women Voters. "He has made sure that he has everybody that he needs on board. So we're saying, 'You need to do the same thing for voting rights.' "

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesdat that Biden has taken "every step possible under his purview" to protect voting rights, and that there would be more discussion about a path forward after Wednesday's vote.

In March, Biden signed an executive order promoting voting rights, calling on federal agencies to develop their own plans to encourage voter registration and participation. Vice President Harris, who has taken the lead on voting rights for the administration, announced an expansion of the Democratic National Committee's "I Will Vote" program, aimed at voter education and protection.

Administration officials also pointed to the Justice Department's announcement that it was doubling its voting rights enforcement staff, as well as the June announcement that the department was suing Georgia over its new voting law.

Biden and Harris also spoke by phone this week to a number of senators about the legislation, the White House said.

Biden spoke with Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California, according to a White House official, while Harris spoke with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jon Ossoff of Georgia, as well as Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine.

Asked about those calls, Psaki said that they were "conversations about the path forward" and conversations about the president's "commitment to ... protecting voting rights," though she did not outline any future plans.

NPR political reporter Alana Wise contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.