WASHINGTON — The Senate left Washington for a monthlong summer recess early Wednesday morning without showing new progress on voting rights legislation, a top-priority agenda item for Democratic leaders and a slew of liberal advocates amid a national effort to pare back voting access in GOP-controlled state legislatures.
Under mounting pressure to advance the issue, Senate Democrats moved to set the stage for a new round of procedural votes in mid-September after Republicans objected to the immediate consideration of several voting bills in the wee hours Wednesday.
‘’Let there be no mistake about what is going on here,’’ Senate majority leader Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York, said after a brief 4 a.m. debate. ‘’We have reached a point in this chamber where Republicans appear to oppose any measure — any measure, no matter how common sense — to protect voting rights and strengthen our democracy.’’
But the path to enactment of federal voting standards appears no clearer now than it did in June, when Republican senators blocked consideration of sweeping elections, ethics and campaign finance legislation known as the For The People Act.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, called the legislation a ‘’ridiculous, go-nowhere bill’' written to advantage Democrats over Republicans. Democrats, he said, should expect no different result in the future.
‘’This isn’t going to work,’’ McConnell said. ‘’It isn’t going to work tonight. And it isn’t going to work when we get back.’’
The symbolic effort to show continued action on voting rights came after a marathon voting session that began Tuesday morning with passage of a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and continued with dozens of votes on budget legislation that continued for more than 14 hours.
While an exhausted corps of lawmakers was eager to leave Washington after a weekslong infrastructure and budget slog, Schumer and other Democratic leaders acted in the predawn hours under sharp demands from activists, elected officials, and voters in states where Republican legislators have passed new voting restrictions.
Senators voted on party lines, 50 to 49, to discharge a voting bill from committee, and after Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, objected to its immediate consideration, Schumer began the process of scheduling it for a procedural vote during the week of Sept. 13.
In the meantime, advocates hold little hope of convincing Republicans to join Democrats in passing voting legislation, but they do hope to convince a handful of Democratic holdouts who have been resisting calls to revise or eliminate the filibuster - the 60-voter supermajority rule that allows a united minority to block most legislation.
After the June vote on the For the People Act, a catchall bill that included dozens of provisions ranging from a public financing system for congressional campaigns to state voting machine standards, Schumer vowed the vote would be ‘’not the end but the beginning’' of the voting rights fight. Several Democratic senators met in recent weeks to revise the bill to solidify support for it by incorporating changes proposed by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat from West Virginia.
The revised bill, however, had yet to be publicly released by the time senators wrapped up the budget debate Wednesday morning, and Schumer could only promise to move to the still-to-be-written compromise next month.
Schumer also sought Wednesday to bring two additional voting-related bills to the Senate floor — a measure that would require greater transparency from so-called ‘’dark money’' groups that engage in political advocacy but do not have to reveal their donors, and a bill that would outlaw partisan redistricting by mandating that states engaged a nonpartisan commission to draw congressional lines. Conducting votes on those bills would have required unanimous consent from all 100 senators, and Cruz objected to both.
Voting rights advocates are now counting on pressure to mount on the senators who have defended the filibuster — most prominently, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat from Arizona — now that Republicans have blocked narrower legislation.
‘’This arcane Senate rule that’s been changed dozens and dozens of times should not stand in the way of protecting our democracy,’’ Tiffany Muller, executive director of the liberal advocacy group End Citizens United, said in a recent interview. ‘’If the filibuster can be changed for things like the budget or trade deals or corporate tax cuts, then surely it can be changed to protect the right to vote.’’
Budget legislation and trade agreements are subject to expedited Senate procedures that have been written into federal law. The Senate has voted previously to reduce the filibuster threshold to its present level of 60 votes and modify its application; some advocates are now proposing a ‘’carve-out’' that would create a specific exception for voting rights legislation.