Almost a month later, voters in Georgia elected Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, giving Democrats control of both chambers of Congress. The very next day, insurrectionists who believed former President Donald Trump’s incessant lies about a “stolen” 2020 presidential election attacked the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn our democratic process. Since then, Republican lawmakers in a number of states have taken their cues from Trump and pushed for laws that make it more difficult for citizens to vote after record turnout in the 2020 election delivered victories for Democrats.
Rep. John Lewis was right, and President Biden was prescient to quote him; our right to vote, and our democracy itself, is not guaranteed. And if nothing is done to address the recent attacks on two key foundations of democracy — the right to vote and the peaceful transition of power — then our democracy stands at great risk.
There have been two notable attempts to bolster our democracy after the January 6 insurrection. The For the People Act, which would undo the recent attacks on voting rights and prevent states from playing partisan games with their election laws, passed the House earlier this year and is headed to the Senate floor. While Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said “failure is not an option,” Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly made it a priority to defeat the bill.
The House also passed a bill to launch an independent commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, but Senate Republicans blocked it Friday with a 54 to 35 vote after using the filibuster for the first time this year. Despite saying in February that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol, McConnell pressured his Republican colleagues and asked them to vote against the commission as “a personal favor” to him.
Investigating an insurrection and protecting voting rights shouldn’t be controversial or partisan, but McConnell and his Republican caucus are intent on stopping these efforts in their tracks.
If Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, why does it matter if the Senate Republican minority stands in opposition? The answer: the Senate filibuster, an outdated rule that was never intended to require a 60-vote majority and has a long history of use by segregationists to protect Jim Crow and kill voting and civil rights bills. Unless Democrats take steps to reform or eliminate the filibuster, McConnell can use this obstructionist weapon to block the For the People Act — and any other legislation.
By now, a growing number of people understand that the filibuster isn’t carved in stone and certainly wasn’t written into the Constitution. One of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, railed against attempts by a “pertinacious minority” to “control the opinion of a majority,” and US Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments. What’s more, Senate rules have changed many times, including by Senate Democrats in 2013 and by Sen. McConnell himself in 2017.
This has also become a top issue for activists, advocates and others across the country who have a growing understanding that the filibuster stands in the way of progress on the issues they care about. Thankfully, even long-time defenders of the filibuster have expressed openness to reform. In March, President Biden said the filibuster was being “abused in a gigantic way,” that he would choose advancing his agenda over preserving the filibuster, and expressed “strong support” for reform that would force senators to actually “stand up and command the Senate floor” to maintain a filibuster. And Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has supported the filibuster as a tool he hoped would force bipartisanship and compromise, has expressed similar concerns as it becomes clearer than ever that it’s doing the exact opposite — and is in fact a primary contributor to the gridlock and dysfunction in today’s broken Senate.
Last summer former President Barack Obama spoke at Lewis’ funeral and called on Congress to honor him by passing the provisions in the For the People Act. He then added a key point: “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
Rep. Lewis was willing to put his body and life on the line to defend the sacred right to vote. Now, President Biden and Senate Democrats simply need to reform the Senate rules. It’s one thing to defend the filibuster in the abstract, it’s another to allow it to block the Jan. 6 insurrection commission and the For the People Act.
In his December speech, President Biden called on the voters of Georgia to “stand up and take back our democracy.” They did their part. Now it’s time for him and Senate Democrats to do theirs.