Senator Chuck Schumer announced today that he is moving ahead with a planned vote on voting rights and a potential rule change meant to reform the filibuster.
Filibuster reform is necessary in order to pass voting rights since the Republican Party is united against the voting rights bills currently under consideration in Congress, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. (Senator Lisa Murkowski voted to allow debate to proceed but does not support the bill as written.)
According to Politico:
Chuck Schumer will bring elections and voting legislation to the Senate floor in the coming days, using existing congressional rules to evade an initial GOP filibuster.
The House will imminently pass a bill containing both sweeping federal elections reform and beefed up Voting Right Act provisions. Because the bill will be sent to the Senate as a “message” from the House, it will not be subject to an initial filibuster by the GOP and will be debated on the floor.
Instead, the Senate will confront its raging debate over the filibuster when Majority Leader Schumer moves to shut down debate.
“The Senate will finally debate voting rights legislation, and then every senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass the legislation to protect our democracy,” Schumer wrote in a memo, obtained by POLITICO, to Senate Democrats.
The voting rights legislation is necessary to combat dozens of voter suppression laws passed in Republican-controlled states over the past year, including in Georgia where it is now illegal to give voters water or food while standing in line. The voter suppression laws are part of the reason – along with Donald Trump’s attempted coup and pushing of the Big Lie – why the United States is now considered a backsliding democracy.
Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate on a bill and move on to a vote. There are exceptions to the filibuster, such as the budgetary process known as reconciliation, but it only covers budgetary matters.
Rather than completely eliminate the filibuster, the Senate could modify its rules so that in order to filibuster a bill you have to physically stand at a lectern, speak, and hold the floor for as long as you can stand. This is what is known as the talking filibuster, and it was the tradition in the Senate for over a century.
Personally, I like to call this proposal the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule. As I wrote last March:
The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule would give the minority party the chance to delay a bill and rally the American people against it. If a bill is as bad as opponents claim, they could still potentially stop it. However, it would not give a minority of senators a veto that does not exist in the Constitution. Once opponents cede the floor, the bill moves to a vote.
According to reporting from Politico and others, Schumer and Senate Democrats are considering implementing the talking filibuster / Mr. Smith Goes to Washington rule. This would restore the Senate’s long tradition of allowing unlimited debate (or at least as long as senators can stand) without giving the minority a veto.
Another possibility is that the Senate could create a carveout for voting rights legislation. The chamber created an exception to the filibuster – on a bipartisan basis, no less – to allow a debt ceiling increase just last month. As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts observed, if the Senate can create a carveout for the debt ceiling, why not voting rights?
Of course, this all hinges on the cooperation of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have said that they oppose eliminating the 60-vote threshold, thus killing voting rights legislation in the process. If the senators truly support voting rights (as they claim) and a functional Senate where the majority can actually govern, they will get behind filibuster reform that includes either a talking filibuster or a carveout for voting rights.
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