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Senate Republicans block debate on elections bill, dealing a blow to Democrats’ voting rights push

Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota (left), walked with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, to Tuesday's debate on a voting rights bill championed by Democrats.
Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota (left), walked with Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, to Tuesday's debate on a voting rights bill championed by Democrats.Drew Angerer/Getty

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans banded together Tuesday to block a sweeping Democratic bill that would revamp the architecture of American democracy, dealing a grave blow to efforts to federally override dozens of GOP-passed state voting laws.

The test vote, which would have cleared the way to start debate on voting legislation, failed 50 to 50 along party lines — 10 votes short of the supermajority needed to advance legislation in the Senate.

It came after Democrat after Democrat delivered warnings about the dire state of American democracy, blaming former president Donald Trump for undermining its foundations by challenging the 2020 election results, which prompted his supporters in numerous state legislatures to pass laws rolling back ballot access.

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“Are we going to let reactionary state legislatures drag us back into the muck of voter suppression? Are we going to let the most dishonest president in history continue to poison our democracy from the inside?” Senate majority leader Charles Schumer said before the vote. “Or will we stand up to defend what generations of Americans have organized, marched, fought and died for — the sacred, sacred right to vote?”

But Republicans stood firmly together in opposition, following the lead of minority leader Mitch McConnell, who on Tuesday lambasted the Democrats’ bill, known as the For the People Act, as “a transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in [Democrats’] favor” and as “a recipe for undermining confidence in our elections.”

While many Democrats and liberal activists insist the fight is not over — pledging to launch a final, furious push over the coming weeks to change the Senate’s rules to pass the bill — they face long odds. Key lawmakers have insisted they are not willing to eliminate the chamber’s supermajority rule to override Republican opposition.

The effort to pass the bill has risen to the highest ranks of the Democratic Party. President Joe Biden on Monday privately counseled a key senator, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, to “find a path forward” on voting rights. On Tuesday, Schumer, of New York, consulted with Biden on the next steps after lambasting Republicans ahead of the test vote for being unwilling to even debate voting rights.

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"They will sweep it under the rug and hope that Americans don't hear about it, but Americans will hear about it," Schumer said. "We're going to make sure of that."

Republicans, however, exhibited little discomfort in their blanket opposition to the Democratic voting bill. Largely written before the 2020 election, it goes well beyond election access standards to federally dictate new rules on campaign financing, government ethics, congressional redistricting, and much more. The House passed the bill earlier this year.

McConnell, of Kentucky, warned Democrats against any attempt to change the filibuster — the 60-vote supermajority rule — to pass their bill, calling election laws “the worst possible place to push through a power grab at any cost.”

"The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten," he said. "That's exactly why this body exists. Today, the Senate is going to fulfill our founding purpose."

McConnell and other Republicans have taken aim at numerous provisions in the Democratic legislation, including a proposal to publicly finance congressional campaigns, potential new disclosure requirements for political donors, and a realignment of the Federal Election Commission meant to break partisan gridlock in enforcing election laws.

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And they have maintained their solid opposition to the ballot-access provisions in the Democratic bill, such as a guaranteed period of early voting, mandatory no-excuse mail voting, and a broad new automatic voter registration system, by arguing the federal government has no role in dictating state election laws.

This year, 18 states have enacted more than 30 laws described as “anti-voter” by the nonpartisan Voting Rights Lab, which tracks developments in state election rules. The restrictions affect roughly 36 million people, or 15 percent of all eligible voters, the group reported last week.

The laws restrict access to mail voting, create new hurdles to registering to vote, impose new voter ID requirements, and expand the definition of criminal behavior by voters, election officials, and third parties, among other changes.

In Texas Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott called a special session of the Legislature that will begin July 8, a move that revives Republicans’ effort to enact what are expected to be some of the most far-reaching voting restrictions in the country.

Democrats have united in opposition to such laws, which were passed after Trump challenged his loss in the 2020 election and rallied his supporters behind an effort to overturn the result.

But Democrats have splintered on how to go about combating the GOP state laws. Manchin, for instance, did not endorse the For the People Act and sketched out a narrower compromise only this month, under pressure from his colleagues and activists. Under his proposal, some of the more debated provisions of the broader bill, such as the public financing system, would be dropped while others would be narrowed, such as automatic voter registration. He also proposed adding a traditional GOP elections priority, mandating voter identification, in a bid to build bipartisan support.

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Manchin's proposal won plaudits from key Democratic voices, including Georgia activist and former lawmaker Stacey Abrams and former president Barack Obama, who said Monday that the West Virginian had proposed "some common-sense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with."

Democrats did win a small victory Tuesday in persuading Manchin to vote to start debate, with the understanding that senators would then vote to make his compromise proposal the new baseline for further amendments. Party leaders wanted to keep their caucus united in a symbolic show of force against the GOP blockade, and Manchin ultimately obliged.

"These reasonable changes have moved the bill forward and to a place worthy of debate on the Senate floor," Manchin said in a statement that also criticized Republicans for blocking the bill anyway.

The senator said he remained "committed to finding a bipartisan pathway forward" but made no statement to indicate whether he was willing to revisit his opposition to eliminating the filibuster.

But Republicans have rejected Manchin's proposal as a nonstarter, and the chances of winning GOP support for any meaningful elections legislation appears to be remote. Lawmakers across the party's ideological spectrum have found themselves comfortable fighting from the territory that McConnell has staked out: that states, not the federal government, are best equipped to write voting laws.

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Material from The New York Times was used in this report.