In the not-too-distant past, the Voting Rights Act was one of the few important issues on which Democrats and Republicans could agree. As we've discussed, as recently as 2006, when Congress reauthorized the landmark law, the vote in the House was 390 to 33, with nearly 200 votes from GOP lawmakers. In the Senate, the reauthorization passed 98 to 0.
Not even the most conservative Senate Republicans wanted to be seen as opponents of the Voting Rights Act. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell touted it with remarks on the chamber's floor. George W. Bush held a big public ceremony at the White House to celebrate the extension of one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.
Seven years later, Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court took a sledgehammer to the Voting Rights Act. It fell to Congress to put things right.
As The New York Times reported, Democrats keep trying to restore the voting rights law, and Republicans — including GOP senators who used to boast about their support for the Voting Rights Act — keep saying no.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation to restore parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings, making it the second major voting bill to be derailed by a G.O.P. filibuster in the past two weeks. Despite receiving majority support, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the civil rights activist and congressman who died last year, fell nine votes short of the 60 required to advance over Republican opposition.
This was a bipartisan bill, negotiated over the course of months. But when the legislation reached the Senate floor yesterday, it needed at least 10 Republican votes to advance. It instead received one: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who helped write the bill, was the lone GOP proponent. (The final tally was 51 to 48, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer switched his vote for procedural reasons.)
It's worth emphasizing that yesterday's vote was simply to allow senators to debate the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. In other words, GOP senators not only stood in the way of voting rights protections they used to support, they also blocked members from even having a formal discussion about the bill.
It's the fourth time this year in which the Senate Republican minority has rejected proposals designed to protect Americans' ability to participate in their own democracy. Indeed, yesterday's development came just two weeks after a Senate GOP filibuster also derailed the Freedom to Vote Act, which was itself a compromise package.
On that bill, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia spent weeks reaching out to Republicans, hoping to get some bipartisan cooperation. In the end, literally every GOP senator backed the partisan filibuster.
The question now is what the narrow Democratic majority intends to do about it.
Though Schumer's remarks were largely overlooked, the Senate majority leader delivered a very interesting speech two weeks ago, hinting that voting rights are so fundamental to our system of government, and so under siege in states nationwide, that senators may have no other choice but to create an exception to the institution's filibuster rules.
Yesterday afternoon, after Republicans filibustered the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the New York Democrat shed additional light on his perspective. After describing the GOP's filibuster as "a low, low point in the history of this body," Schumer added:
"[A]s anyone who has been here for more than a few years knows, the gears of Senate have ossified over the years. The filibuster is used far more today than ever before — by some measures ten times as much compared to decades past.... I believe the Senate needs to be restored to its rightful status as the world's greatest deliberative body.... Just because Republicans will not join us doesn't mean Democrats will stop fighting. This is too important. We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward, even if it means going at it alone, to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens."
This line of thought appears increasingly persuasive among his members. Over the summer, Virginia's Mark Warner, a moderate Senate Democrat, publicly endorsed a carve-out to the status quo, saying Americans' voting rights are so fundamentally important to our system of government, this is "the only area" in which he'd support an exception to the chamber's existing filibuster rules.
Last month, Maine's Angus King, a moderate independent who caucuses with Democrats, said something similar on MSNBC. "I've concluded that democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule," Angus told Nicolle Wallace.
As for Congress' most conservative Democrat, who remains an ardent supporter of the filibuster rule, the Times' report added, "Democrats were well aware that they were likely to again hit a Republican wall on voting rights. But part of their calculation has been to demonstrate to Mr. Manchin, who has been deeply involved in crafting both measures, that Republicans are determined to obstruct the bills, making a change in filibuster rules the only route to enacting the measures."
Watch this space.