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The GOP filibuster of the For the People Act shows they're afraid to debate voting rights

There's only one reason to use — or keep — the filibuster: Fear.

I don’t know how much more bluntly I can say this: The filibuster isn’t a protector of democracy. It’s not the last bastion against tyranny of the majority. It’s a tool of cowards.

Because let’s be clear: Tuesday’s vote in the Senate wasn’t about passing the For the People Act. It wasn’t even the vote to begin the process of discussing and amending the bill. No, the vote was the first of two steps: first, asking the Senate to “end debate” on whether to turn the Senate’s full attention to the bill; and then, if that passed, asking if a majority wanted to bring the bill to the Senate floor. That first step is what Senate Republicans rejected en masse.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the lone question mark among the Democrats as the Senate came to order on Tuesday morning, having previously declared his opposition. Just hours before the vote, with all the skill of a seasoned dramaturge, Manchin announced that he would support the motion to proceed to the bill. In exchange, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed to a set of proposals Manchin introduced last week to winnow down the scope of the bill, requiring voter ID nationwide and trimming provisions that would publicly finance federal campaigns.

It was a price that Schumer, heralded for his messaging strategies, was willing to pay for a united Democratic front. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., managed the same, holding every member of his caucus firm.

In a world that makes sense, Vice President Kamala Harris — who presides over the Senate — would have broken the resulting 50-50 tie. But because of the filibuster, the world’s greatest deliberative body was silenced in the name of unlimited debate. Sixty “yes” votes, just 10 from Republicans, were required to break the impasse; zero Republicans obliged.

It also served as a reminder that as much as Democrats (rightly) complain about Republican obstruction, they have the ability to break the logjam.

What was most galling about this whole shadow play is how unnecessary any of it was. It would have cost Republicans nothing to allow debate on the bill to proceed — and then kill it before final passage or even filibustering the final vote. This was simply a GOP flex; a reminder that even though they’re in the minority, they still can effectively set the Senate’s agenda.

It also served as a reminder that as much as Democrats (rightly) complain about Republican obstruction, they have the ability to break the logjam. But as of now, there aren’t the 50 votes necessary to amend the Senate rule that empowers the filibuster, let alone abolish the procedure.

I wrote back in February that Manchin and Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., the most outspoken Democratic defenders of the filibuster, were really “protecting themselves politically at the expense of the country.” It turns out I was too easy on them — especially Sinema.

The Arizona moderate published an op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday justifying her position on the filibuster. It was, to be generous, specious. To be ungenerous, it was fearful and timid, written from a place of distrust in America’s voters. Particularly ill-considered is her stance that the filibuster “helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles”:

To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to expand health-care access or retirement benefits: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to later see that legislation replaced by legislation dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, or defunding women’s reproductive health services?

To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to empower federal agencies to better protect the environment or strengthen education: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see federal agencies and programs shrunk, starved of resources, or abolished a few years from now?

This vacillation between extremes in lawmaking based on the voters’ whims is something the Founders feared, especially in the House of Representatives, which has always been directly elected by the people. And the Constitution does include certain checks on the Senate that allow for more reasoned debate: Senate terms are longer than in the House and staggered, so that only one third of the body is up for re-election in any given national election. Senators were also originally chosen by state legislatures, which kept them a step removed from the masses. Notably, the filibuster is not one of those checks — it’s an accidental quirk of the Senate’s rules that was for most of its existence almost exclusively used to help hobble civil rights legislation.

More troubling, Sinema’s arguments depend on Democrats passing their agenda — and then losing elections precisely because they passed their agenda. Her essay is one that posits that voters can’t tell good ideas from bad ones and will punish officials who pass partisan laws, no matter how effective. It’s saying that the status quo, where almost nothing can get done in Congress without herculean effort and an inevitable drift to the right in the negotiating process, is preferable to any progress. And it’s an argument that is filled with crippling doubt in the ideals of the Democratic Party — the wild swings that she predicts suggests that Democrats’ ideas are just as indefensible to voters as the Republicans’ vastly more unpopular platform.

Sinema’s arguments depend on Democrats passing their agenda — and then losing elections precisely because they passed their agenda.

But while I’m focusing on Manchin and Sinema, they aren’t alone in the caucus. They’re wrong in both their reasoning and the odds of their payout — but at least they have the shrewdness to cast themselves as the leaders of this pro-filibuster movement. Less defensible are the Democrats who quietly agree with them, which NBC News on Monday called the “worst-kept secret in Washington.” Not all of these Democrats — like Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado — are as staunchly opposed to reforming the rules. But such equivocating shows a lack of fortitude and conviction in their ideals.

It may be, as some pundits have opined, that the For the People Act was just a messaging bill, a symbolic gesture for their base, and it was a mistake for Democrats to hype it up as their main voting rights fix. But why should we believe that any of the other voting rights bills waiting in the wings will fare better? As it is, there is no evidence that Republicans will support any of them — or, for that matter, that they disagree with the alterations currently passing in state after state based on the lies former President Donald Trump spread during the 2020 race.

There is at present one GOP senator — Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski— who might be an exception. In a speech on Monday, Murkowski framed her opposition to the act in contrast to her support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. (The latter is a good bill, in my opinion, that Manchin also backs, which would restore and expand the Department of Justice’s ability to invalidate state election laws that are discriminatory against minority voters.)

But as Murkowski herself put it, she was the only GOP co-sponsor on a version of that bill introduced in early 2020, pre-dating the current conspiracy-theory driven legislative shifts in the states. Without the filibuster, Murkowski would be just one more vote alongside the Democratic majority, making the bill’s eventual passage bipartisan. Instead, when the John Lewis Voting Rights Act eventually does pass the House in the fall and land in the Senate, her affirmative vote may be meaningless.

If bills fail in the Senate, they should fail on their merits, exactly what the filibuster prevents. The GOP is afraid of spending the next few weeks in the Senate debating a bill filled with provisions to reduce corruption in elections, expand voting rights, and eliminate the partisan gerrymanders that keep politicians unaccountable. It makes a certain craven sense for them to use the filibuster to block this from happening. Democrats allowing it to happen is far more disturbing.