WASHINGTON — As Democrats’ hopes to pass landmark voting rights legislation once again died in the Senate this week, Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, one of the party’s leaders in the House, has been thinking a lot about the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That’s the landmark bridge in Selma, Ala., where in 1965, civil rights activists, including the late Representative John Lewis, were beaten by state troopers for marching for the right to vote. The bridge rises steeply, obscuring the view of the other side until one reaches the middle. A person has to commit to climb up, as Lewis did at age 25, and keep going, Clark said, even as they see obstacles that lie ahead.
Lewis and the other activists “didn’t turn back in the middle when they were met with incredible violence,” Clark said in an interview on Wednesday, hours before the voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate. “They regrouped and restrengthened and came back across the bridge.”
Clark and her Democratic colleagues are trying to regroup and regain momentum following an emotional debate in the Senate that touched on racism and past civil rights struggles. In the end, Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation and Democrats failed to convince their more moderate members to change the body’s rules to overcome that blockade, putting the passage of future Democratic-backed legislation in doubt.
The latest setback has been particularly bruising for House Democrats, who have helped President Biden deliver on many of his campaign promises, only to see those efforts meet a familiar fate in the upper chamber, which is more narrowly controlled by Democrats. It comes as the party is facing daunting odds in the 2022 midterms, and civil rights groups and activists have raised concerns over what they see as the Biden administration’s failure to meet the urgency of the moment.
“Sometimes, it is a step forward and a step backward, but it is progress,” Clark said.
Still, as Democrats head home this week empty-handed, many Democratic activists and operatives are worried about rallying key parts of their coalition, including young people and people of color, who helped send Biden to the White House.
“It is going to be tough to communicate this [loss] to the base,” said Tré Easton, a former Senate policy adviser and deputy director of the Battle Born Collective, a Democratic communications firm. “It is going to be tough to take this to voters who rely on this progress.”
House Democrats do have some clear victories to run on: They passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that delivered $1,400 checks in pandemic relief to most Americans. They have ensured the vaccinations of some 200 million people and expanded the temporary child tax credit for families. And they approved a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which will help expand high-speed Internet access and allow states to repair their roads and bridges.
But several of the House Democrats’ major bills delivering on Biden’s priorities, including legislation to raise the minimum wage and his massive climate change and social spending legislation, have met their demise in the Senate, in part because of the lack of support from two Democratic colleagues, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
The voting rights bill, which would have created national standards over access to the ballot, failed to advance late Wednesday after Manchin and Sinema and all 50 Republicans blocked Democrats from changing the Senate rules to overcome a filibuster, which would have allowed the bill to pass with a threshold of 51 votes rather than 60. The proposal would have, among other provisions, banned partisan gerrymandering, made Election Day a national holiday, and required jurisdictions to allow at least 15 days of early voting. It also included key parts of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would have restored provisions of the 1965 law that were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013, such as requiring some jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination at the ballot box to receive prior approval from the government before changing their voting laws.
Its defeat has left prominent Democrats fuming at their colleagues for setting back measures the party sees as crucial to countering the recent wave of election laws in Republican-controlled states that could make it harder for people of color, young people, and poor people to vote, and hand Republicans more control over future elections.
Republicans have portrayed Biden’s voting rights legislation as an intrusion into states’ power over elections, and labeled the Democrats’ efforts to override the filibuster a power grab.
Hours before the vote on the legislation, Biden conceded he had underestimated the stiff opposition his policies would face from Republicans. “So, I tell my Republican friends: Here I come,” he said, pledging to change tactics and focus on explaining Democratic priorities to the public. “This is going to be about, ‘What are you for?’ ”
Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist and former Senate aide, said, “There is a lot of blame to go around” on the voting rights bill. The White House was slow to take up the issue, he said, and he accused Manchin of not being an “honest broker” for dealing Biden’s domestic spending package a surprising and consequential blow amid negotiations.
“The bill,” Manley said, “is just another indication, another example of how broken the Senate has become.”
Though Manchin has remained unswayed on the filibuster for weeks, he suggested on Wednesday that he could be open to a more tailored voting rights bill. Democrats also still have some time to pass slimmed down versions of Biden’s legislative priorities before the midterms, and Biden said he is still hopeful the Senate will pass a bill addressing climate change.
But the defeat once again exposed the difficulties of governing for a party that has become so ideologically diverse, said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. While some in the party are eager to run on concrete progressive accomplishments, those facing reelection in swing districts might be punished for even trying.
“In those very progressive districts where most progressives understand that the House delivers and the Senate could not, they will be safe,” she said. “It is also the case that in some purple districts, they will be held responsible for those progressive policies even if they didn’t pass in the Senate. In those districts, the House is seen as too far left.”
Clark, who will be at the forefront of helping Democrats across the country sell the wins and deflect the losses, trained her criticism squarely on Republicans. The GOP’s “game of obstructionism,” as she termed it, is in response to Democrats putting workers and families at the top of the congressional agenda over corporations and the wealthy.
“As we have proceeded with an agenda that puts people first, it is being met with absolute resistance from the Republican Party and those who are threatened by putting the American worker, by putting women and communities of color, back into the priority,” Clark said.
Asked what she would tell frustrated party activists, Clark turned to the words of Lewis, who frequently traveled with her and other members of Congress to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the civil rights struggle.
“We can’t be discouraged,” Clark quoted. “We cannot be weary, we can’t give up, and we cannot lose faith.”