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Jon Ossoff, Susan Collins spar in unusually personal floor debate over voting rights legislation

Senators Susan Collins and Jon Ossoff.Globe wire photos

An unusual and at times personal back-and-forth between Senators Jon Ossoff and Susan Collins over voting rights legislation had some lawmakers applauding on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

The exchange took place amid a fierce debate over whether to change Senate rules to weaken the legislative filibuster, which would allow voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority vote. The push by Senate Democrats to do so ultimately failed as Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema maintained their objection to any filibuster changes, dooming the legislation.

Ossoff, a Democratic Senator from Georgia, suggested in a floor speech on Wednesday that Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, was hypocritical in her opposition to the voting rights bill based on her 2006 comments in support of the reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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Ossoff read quotes from Collins and other Republican senators praising the landmark 1965 voting legislation, and accused them of hypocrisy in refusing to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which seeks to restore provisions of the landmark bill that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

“Today, only one Republican senator will stand up for this landmark achievement of the civil rights movement,” Ossoff said, referring to Senator Lisa Murkowski, who voted to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in November. “Not my friend, the Senator from Maine, Senator Collins, who previously said this bill will ensure that the voting rights afforded to all Americans are protected.”

Collins took exception to being called out by name, suggesting Ossoff was confusing the Voting Rights Act reauthorization with the legislation that was considered by the Senate Wednesday, which in addition to shoring up protections lost from the 2013 Supreme Court decision would go much further, implementing same-day voter registration and voting by mail nationwide, among other things. The Voting Rights Act was reauthorized several times, most recently by a unanimous Senate vote in 2006.

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“I voted enthusiastically and did say that about the Voting Rights Act reauthorization in 2006 and surely my colleague is not confusing that bill, which was five pages long, five pages, with the bill that is before the senate tonight, which is 735 pages long. Surely he is not confusing those two bills,” she said.

“I do support the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and I did so as did every other senator in 2006. But to weight that to the legislation that is before us now is simply not worthy. And had I been on the floor at that time I might well have thought of reminding the senator that we have a rule in the Senate, Rule 19, against impugning the integrity or the motives of other senators,” she added. “I think it is sad that he implied otherwise about our support for such important civil rights legislation.”

Ossoff said there was an “inconsistency” between lauding the Voting Rights Act as a “signature civil rights achievement” and then voting “not even to allow debate in this body” over the current bill.

The debate drew praise from at least one Senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who said the unusual back and forth between Collins and Ossoff — which at times became deeply detailed as they sparred over specific provisions — was “perhaps the most substantive exchange I’ve ever witnessed in 13 years here in the Senate,” drawing laughs and applause from others in the chamber.

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But the debate wasn’t entirely collegial. At the opening of his remarks on Wednesday, Ossoff slammed Republicans who argued against the voting legislation, comparing their rhetoric to that of segregationists.

“Abraham Lincoln must be turning in his grave to hear the senators from the Grand Old Party, the party of abolition and emancipation and reconstruction, echoing the states’ rights rhetoric of Dixiecrat segregationists to oppose federal voting rights legislation,” Ossoff said.

Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill over the Republican filibuster. It failed 49-51 Wednesday on a largely party-line vote.

Next, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put forward a rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this one bill. It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.

But that, too, failed because Manchin and Sinema were unwilling to change the Senate rules with a party-line vote by Democrats alone.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when Senator Lisa Murkowski voted to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. She did so in November. Murkowski voted against advancing the legislation considered on Wednesday, which combined the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

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Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.