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To protect voting rights, centrist Dem backs filibuster exception

Mark Warner doesn't want to end Senate filibusters, but to protect voting rights, he's ready to accept a small exception to the existing rules.

On the surface, proponents of federal voting rights protections appear to have two paths toward success. The first is finding 10 Senate Republicans so opposed to the GOP's anti-voting crusade that they'll ignore their own party's leaders, link arms with Democrats, and shield the franchise.

The second is scrapping the Senate's filibuster rules, restoring the institution to its majority-rule traditions, and allowing members to simply vote up-or-down on voting-rights legislation.

There's an obvious problem with both approaches: they're so wildly unrealistic that relying on either solution effectively guarantees failure. But what if there was another option behind Door #3?

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was on Fox News yesterday, and host Martha MacCallum asked about his appetite for eliminating the filibuster. The Virginia Democrat's response raised a few eyebrows:

"Martha, I don't want the Senate to become like the House. But I do believe when it comes to voting rights, when it comes to that basic right to exercise and participate in democracy, I get very worried what's happening in some of these states where they are actually penalizing, saying if you give somebody water waiting in line to vote, or in states like Texas where they're saying a local government can overcome the results of a local election. That is not democracy. And if we have to do a small carve out on filibuster for voting rights, that is the only area where I'd allow that kind of reform."

In other words, under Warner's approach, the Senate's filibuster rules would remain broadly intact, but members would make an exception -- which is to say, they would add to the list of existing exceptions -- so that senators could protect voting rights by majority rule.

For reformers eager to get rid of the filibuster altogether, the centrist senator's position may be unsatisfying, but Warner has opened the door to an important opportunity.

Consider the trajectory of the Virginian's position. As 2021 got underway, Warner told CNBC, "I don't think that we ought to be coming in willy-nilly and changing the rules.... I think we ought to keep the rules." A month later, he described proposals to reform the Senate as "drastic."

But by March, as Republicans targeted voting rights with a vengeance, the Democratic centrist started to hedge. "[W]hen it comes to fundamental issues like protecting Americans from draconian efforts attacking their constitutional right to vote, it would be a mistake to take any option off the table," Warner said.

And yesterday, the senator arrived at a key point, expressing public support for "a small carve out on filibuster for voting rights."

Mark Warner is not known for being a rabid partisan or fierce ideologue. If he's on board with protecting Americans' voting rights by way of a "small" exception to the filibuster rule, it's the kind of compromise development that's likely to get attention from other Democratic centrists.

Watch this space.