News Analysis

Democrats Search for Path on Voting Rights Amid Republican Blockade

Backers of the legislation said they were not giving up as they shifted focus to the need to “restore” the Senate.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to reporters after Republicans blocked voting rights legislation on Wednesday.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats crashed once again on Wednesday into the seemingly impenetrable Republican wall blocking new voting rights legislation, leaving them with a simple question: Now what?

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now abundantly clear that no voting legislation will advance without changes in Senate rules to overcome blanket opposition from Republicans who have filibustered it three times.

Republicans who see new voting restrictions being imposed around the country as playing to their electoral benefit are in no mood to bend on a Democratic proposal that might erase some of that advantage. Not a single Republican joined Democrats in trying to bring up a measure to bolster voting rights. The 50-50 tie left Democrats at least 10 votes short of breaking the filibuster and cast deep doubt on the future of the measure.

But Democrats, confronted with a level of Republican intractability they say puts at risk the very future of democracy — not to mention their own political parity — remained determined to find a way forward and enact some version of their bill. Under mounting pressure from progressive activists who are growing agitated with the inability of President Biden and Democratic leaders to deliver on their highest priorities, they see throwing in the towel as unacceptable.

“We have all Democrats on board, and we are not going to let this drop,” said Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia.

The quandary for Democrats is that while every senator aligned with their party supports the compromise elections measure, at least two of them — Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — have said repeatedly that they will not support any effort to undermine the filibuster.

Mr. Manchin’s opposition in particular led Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, to make his latest failed attempt at breaking through the Republican blockade.

Mr. Schumer had tasked Mr. Manchin with brokering a compromise voting rights bill and then shopping it to Republicans in hopes of winning some bipartisan backing, in line with the West Virginian’s oft-stated belief that the filibuster fosters the kind of deal-making that yields broadly supported policy. Absolutely no Republican support emerged. Democrats hoped that the futile effort would demonstrate to Mr. Manchin once and for all that Republicans were engaged in pure obstruction and had no intention of cooperating on voting legislation.

Now Democrats say they will begin meeting among themselves to weigh alternatives and try to persuade any holdouts that passage of the elections bill is of paramount importance — and that the only way it can be accomplished is through some sort of change in Senate rules.

“We will circle back with all of our colleagues to plead with them to make the changes necessary to pass this bill,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

Even as they were thwarted once again by Republicans, Democrats began to shift tactics and tone. Rather than discussing the need to jettison the filibuster, which can sound like a wonky feud over procedure, they are trying to frame the fight in grander terms — the inability of the contemporary Senate to function given the routine use of the filibuster.

After the vote, multiple Democrats said there was a need to “restore” the Senate to a point where filibusters were rare and majority votes were sufficient to advance important legislation.

“What we saw from Republicans today is not how the Senate is supposed to work,” Mr. Schumer said. “This is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, where we debate, forge compromise, amend and pass legislation to help the American people. That is the legacy of this great chamber.”

Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The stalemate over the voting bill and other Democratic priorities is clearly frustrating Democrats and drawing more into a willingness to consider rules changes. Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, made clear this week that he was open to entertaining some revisions if that was what it would take to advance the voting bill.

On Wednesday, Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, said he was reconsidering his own reluctance to alter Senate rules.

“In the end, it is going to come down to getting Republicans or restoring order,” Mr. Tester said in an interview, conceding that winning Republican votes appeared unlikely. “I’m keeping it open,” he said about the possibility of revising the rules.

Mr. King and other Democrats emphasized that enacting a rules change would not mean eliminating the filibuster on legislation entirely and that a more nuanced approach such as requiring an old-time “talking” filibuster, where foes have to take the floor to battle legislation, could be the end result.

“A number of us have different options, ways we can get this done,” Mr. Kaine said. “The leader has a real sense of urgency about it, which I share, and he thinks we need to do something by Thanksgiving.”

Any move would be certain to be met with extreme resistance from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, and his fellow Republicans. Mr. McConnell assailed the voting legislation again on Wednesday as a power grab by Democrats, and vowed to keep employing the filibuster to hinder them from enacting policies he and his Republican troops oppose.

“The same rotten core is all still there,” Mr. McConnell said of the new legislation. “As long as Senate Democrats remain fixated on their radical agenda, this body will continue to do the job the framers assigned it and stop terrible ideas in their tracks.”

To Democrats, it is the Republicans who are radical and driving the Senate toward dysfunction never envisioned by the nation’s founders. Even as they rely on the filibuster to thwart voting protections in Washington, Republicans in states around the country are using baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election to justify new voting restrictions that could impede the ability of minorities and others to cast ballots in the future.

The Democratic legislation seeks to counter those efforts. The bill would set federal standards for early and mail-in voting and make Election Day a national holiday, among other provisions. It would also mandate that voters provide some form of identification before casting a ballot, a requirement that many Democrats had previously resisted, although it would be far less restrictive than similar measures imposed by Republicans.

After Wednesday’s vote, Democrats essentially abandoned the idea of winning over Republicans. Now they have to persuade a few of their own members that the need to adopt the voting legislation outweighs allegiance to Senate procedure.