News Update

A grave week for civil rights, democracy and a presidency

The party faces a moment of stark symbolism just a day after the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., which Democrats had set as a deadline to pass new laws to counter Republican curtailments on voting in multiple states. Votes expected to be called by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will enshrine ideological divides in the party and call into question the credibility of an under-pressure President who has led a full-throated campaign for legislation demanded by modern civil rights leaders in the week that he marks his anniversary in office.
  • Democrats will hold a high-stakes caucus meeting on Tuesday evening, but there is no sign they can convince holdout colleagues to support efforts to change Senate rules to pass the two bills with a simple majority.
  • That means that when Schumer, a New York Democrat, brings up voting rights legislation later this week, it will fail because Democrats are unable to get 60 votes to break Republican filibuster tactics.
  • Schumer could then hold a vote on changing those filibuster rules to pass the two bills with the votes of all 50 Democrats and a tie-breaker vote from Vice President Kamala Harris.
  • That tactic would force Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who oppose removing the Senate filibuster, to go on record opposing a centerpiece of Biden’s presidency and may only deepen their estrangement with their colleagues.
An Arizona Trump rally and voting rights march underscore the fight for democracyAn Arizona Trump rally and voting rights march underscore the fight for democracy
Despite several early term successes, the voting rights standoff, and a separate but similar one over Biden’s social welfare and climate plan, emphasize the near-impossibility of enacting major reform with a 50-50 Senate majority. All it takes is one senator to stall an entire agenda. A failed voting rights drive will also deal a blow to Black leaders who were instrumental to Biden’s win in the Democratic primary and the election in 2020. Many of those campaigners believe that the White House waited too long to make voting rights the main focus on his presidency — notwithstanding the fact that Biden had no credible path to passing the bills into law. Without the legislation, there could be serious consequences for Democratic enthusiasm and turnout in vital swing states in November’s midterm elections.
In a broader sense, the roadblock that Biden has hit in the Senate reveals the reality of a President who is in power but is unable to wield the full weight of his office because of tiny congressional majorities delivered by voters in 2020. The situation is exacerbated by almost blanket Republican opposition — save for a bipartisan infrastructure deal last year that evaded ex-Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama but that Biden delivered in one of his major achievements.
This week’s theater will create a fresh picture of the futility of Democratic power in Washington. Yet the obstacle to passing voting rights reform and the Build Back Better climate and spending bill were obvious long ago. But the White House and Democratic leaders chose to press ahead anyway with no clear path to success. Absent some last minute reversal by Manchin and Sinema, which is highly unlikely, the current snarl raises questions about the White House’s political strategy and decision to prepare the public for historic generational reforms without the guarantee that they could be enacted. At this point, there is a strong sense that Senate votes are being held for mostly political reasons rather than in any expectations they will deliver new laws.
When they hit the Senate wall, it’s not clear what Democrats will do next. Asked on Monday about the administration’s plans, Harris said the strategy was to “keep working on it.”
What to know about the Senate's nuclear optionWhat to know about the Senate's nuclear option
“I’m making calls and meeting with folks. We’re not going to give up. You’ve heard me say that before, and I mean it. This is too important,” the vice president told reporters.
It’s true that the story of the civil rights struggle was played out over decades, encountered worse congressional obstruction than is likely to unfold this week and ultimately rewarded dedicated political campaigning. But if Democrats cannot pass their voting rights bills soon, they may lose the opportunity to do so for years with Republicans confident of capturing control of the House of Representatives and eyeing a Senate takeover in November’s elections.

Sinema and Manchin stand firm

Manchin and Sinema have been impervious to pressure, and appear only to have become more entrenched the more intense the scrutiny of their positions. They have both argued — without much recent evidence — that the filibuster promotes bipartisan cooperation and laws that can be accepted by a majority of Americans. In a Senate speech last week that effectively served as a rebuke to Biden, Sinema also warned that eliminating the 60-vote threshold would in itself wipe out a safeguard for democracy and empower future demagogues.
At the same time, Biden has effectively weakened his own political authority by signing up to deadlines and timelines — from the passage of the voting rights legislation to the declaration of partial independence from the coronavirus pandemic last year — that have been missed. At least four trips up to Capitol Hill to cajole Democrats, including on the spending and climate bill, yielded little result for a President who sold his long record as a senator during the 2020 campaign as proof he could build governing coalitions. And the President effectively put the entire credibility of his administration on the line last week with a major civil rights and voting rights speech in Atlanta that even some in his own party suggested went too far in comparing lawmakers who do not support changing filibuster rules to segregationists.
'History will be watching what happens tomorrow': King family demands Senate pass voting rights legislation'History will be watching what happens tomorrow': King family demands Senate pass voting rights legislation
Now Biden and the Democrats have raised the stakes for themselves by declaring a fateful moment for democracy but are at risk of coming away with nothing in a failure that could further dampen public perceptions of Biden’s term, which is struggling to regain momentum in a midterm election year.
If the voting rights legislation fails this week, as is expected, it is not clear how Democrats will proceed. While one single Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has expressed support for one of the current bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, all of the GOP Senate conference opposes the Freedom to Vote Act. Taken together, the measures would allow all Americans the right to a mail-in vote, create Election Day as a national holiday, standardize voting rules and restore protections against racial discrimination in state voting laws stripped by the Supreme Court. Republicans brand the bills as a federal takeover of the election system and rebuff criticism of state voting laws, which are rooted in Trump’s lies the 2020 election was stolen.

The threat to democracy grows

Some Republicans have expressed interest in working to amend the Electoral Count Act to eliminate shenanigans like Trump’s coup plot to subvert the certification of the 2020 election that led to the Capitol insurrection. This would be a tangible step. But it would not placate voting rights activists who argue that the Republican flurry of state laws designed to suppress the vote and politicize election certification has put American democracy itself at risk.
Martin Luther King III, son of the assassinated civil rights pioneer, tapped into that sense of urgency on Monday, warning that students in 50 years would read about what happens in the Senate this week.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, we must keep the pressure on and say no more empty words. Don’t tell us what you believe in, show us with your votes,” he said. “History will be watching what happens tomorrow.”
Pro-Trump Republicans try to rewrite state election laws as a voting rights showdown looms in CongressPro-Trump Republicans try to rewrite state election laws as a voting rights showdown looms in Congress
Democracy advocates are especially concerned at measures in some states that seek to politicize the non-partisan process of collecting and tabulating election results, after some notable Republican officials stood firm in 2020 against Trump’s bid to steal an election that multiple courts and even his own Justice Department said he lost.
The threat on this score posed by the increasingly autocratic Trump is only becoming more extreme. The ex-President spewed more delusional and dangerous lies about non-existent election fraud at a rally in Arizona on Saturday night. He also pressured legislators in the state to decertify Biden’s victory in the election. In a recent video message, the twice-impeached, defeated ex-President also claimed he won Pennsylvania, a state he in fact lost by more than 80,000 votes to Biden.
“We have to be a lot sharper the next time when it comes to counting the votes,” said Trump, who has been trying to leverage supporters onto election boards and into positions responsible for running voting across the country. “Sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate,” he added.
So far, Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election have all failed. But his tantrum after refusing to admit defeat to Biden has resulted in substantial changes to the US electoral system that arguably make it less democratic. The current President and his party may be about to squander their best, and perhaps last chance to respond.
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