Democrats and civil rights leaders have campaigned mightily for President Joe Biden’s big voting rights legislation, but things aren’t looking good. Senate debate is stalled and Biden would need to change the filibuster rules to overcome Republican opposition. That doesn’t seem likely to happen, with Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia refusing to budge.
It’s an enormous setback for Biden and a huge frustration for many activists — including members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, who asked Americans not to celebrate MLK Day unless Congress moved on voting rights. This all comes as many states are making sweeping changes to their own voting laws like consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and other change in moves that supporters say will increase voter security but activists say disproportionately impact Black Americans.
The core piece of legislation is the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which would make Election Day a national holiday, guarantee early voting and mail-in ballot access and empower the Justice Department to intervene in cases of voter suppression and interference. It would also guarantee automatic voter registration — requiring Americans to opt out of voting instead of opting in. It would standardize 15 days of early voting in all 50 states and while it wouldn’t do away with requiring photo IDs, it would expand the types of IDs accepted. It would also restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people who had served their sentence.
It’s a big bill, and one both Manchin and Sinema support, but are not willing to nuke the filibuster to see it pass.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that his party will continue to push and is seeking a compromise with their party holdouts that would stop short of completely ending the filibuster, but no movement looks particularly likely. Neither Manchin or Sinema are willing to change the rules in any way that would rely on party-line votes alone. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell supported just such a change during former President Donald Trump’s presidency, getting rid of the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, but says any such change now would “break the Senate.”
Biden has flipped as well, reversing on his one-time hesitancy to change Senate rules to advocate for such a change to help power his legislation through. Manchin and Sinema have been thorn in the side of Biden’s legislative agenda, opposing both his Build Back Better Bill and, now, the voting rights package he’d hoped would be the landmark of his first term and help boost his flagging support ahead of a midterm election that is looking bleak for Democrats.