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Dems try to create some momentum to pass voting rights legislation

Unless Kyrsten Sinema changes her mind, the Republican campaign against voting rights will go without a response from Congress.

Twice this month, the Senate made exceptions to the chamber's filibuster rules, once to help prevent another Republican-imposed government shutdown, and again a week later to prevent a Republican-imposed debt-ceiling crisis. It wasn't long, however, before voting rights advocates posed an important question: If the Senate can create carve outs to the filibuster to protect our economy, why not create another exception to protect our democracy?

With the Build Back Better package struggling — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin isn't close to supporting the measure — NBC News reported yesterday that Democratic leaders are "instead hoping to take action on voting rights."

Senate Democrats are discussing changing the rules to allow for passage on a 50-vote majority, a move that remains uncertain. A group of four moderate Democrats, including Manchin, have held numerous meetings in the past several days to discuss a possible rule change.

As of yesterday afternoon, there was enough kinetic political activity to give the appearance of momentum. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock had made a compelling pitch in support of the idea of a carve-out to the filibuster rule, pointing to other recent exceptions from the last two weeks. The Georgian's argument found favor with some of his more progressive colleagues, including Hawaii's Brian Schatz, and some of his moderate colleagues, including Virginia's Mark Warner.

Soon after, Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado also came out in support of changing the filibuster to protect voting rights, reasoning that "if we can change the process on the debt ceiling, then surely we can do the same to protect our democracy."

This came on the heels of other moderate members of the Democratic conference, including Delaware's Tom Carper and Maine's Angus King — endorsing the strategy of protecting voting rights by majority rule, even if that means creating an exception to the filibuster. It's the same course democracy scholars pleaded with lawmakers to embrace.

Late yesterday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer met with Manchin again, not to discuss Build Back Better, but to explore whether members could be allowed to vote on the Freedom to Vote Act. Angus King participated in the talks, as did Virginia's Tim Kaine and Montana's Jon Tester. President Joe Biden soon after voiced new support for the efforts.

With all of this unfolding fairly quickly, democracy advocates started feeling at least some optimism. It was last night when Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona seemed to crush their hopes. Politico reported:

Kyrsten Sinema supports the elections reform bill that Democrats are considering a year-end push to pass. She doesn't support a shortcut around the filibuster to get it done. The Arizona moderate is making clear that she intends to keep protecting the Senate's 60-vote requirement on most legislation and she isn't ready to entertain changing rules to pass sweeping elections or voting legislation with a simple majority.

As things stand, Sinema says she supports both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. That's a good start. The problem, of course, is that the Republican minority won't allow members to vote up or down on the proposals.

So why not create an exception to the filibuster in order to protect democracy? Sinema's office said in a statement to Politico that if Democrats were to take such a course, their voting rights protections legislation could be "rescinded in a few years and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law, nationwide restrictions on vote-by-mail, or other voting restrictions currently passing in some states extended nationwide."

The logic here is truly amazing: Democrats can't pass voting rights protections on their own, because if they do, Republicans might try to undermine voting rights at some future date. And that's why Sinema intends to do nothing as Republicans undermine voting rights right now.

Unless she changes her mind, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will die, and the national GOP campaign against democracy will have no congressional response.