WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell excoriated Democrats’ unsuccessful attempt at temporarily changing Senate rules to pave their way for passage of a sweeping 700-page voting rights bill that lacked any Republican support.
A Democratic point of order to lower the legislative body’s threshold to a simple majority – rather than the 60 votes required – failed late Wednesday night, capping a marathon day on Capitol Hill that McConnell described as “in all likelihood the most important day in the history of the Senate as an institution.”
But after hours of floor debate on both the substance of the voting rights package and the rules that govern the upper chamber, McConnell won, keeping the filibuster intact and likely dashing Democrats’ dreams of electoral reform in this election year.
But before the 52-48 vote – in which Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joined all Republicans to oppose the rule change – McConnell unloaded on the opposition’s maneuver.
“This is the first time a majority leader convinced nearly all of his party to attack the institution. That hasn’t happened before,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, turning to his Republican colleagues as he delivered a plodding but emphatic speech.
“This country will be shielded by their radicalism tonight, and make no mistake this is radicalism,” McConnell said. “The Senate will be safe tonight. America can breathe a sigh of relief, this radicalism will have been stopped. A good day for America.”
Prior to the attempt at the rule change, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer moved to proceed with the Freedom to Vote Act named after civil rights hero John R. Lewis. But needing 60 votes to move to final passage, that failed on a strictly partisan basis.
It became the fourth time during President Joe Biden’s administration that Republicans have filibustered Democratic-sponsored voting rights legislation.
But even after back to back failed votes, Schumer vowed it wouldn’t be the last time his party tried to federalize voting laws.
“We will not quit,” Schumer said.
McConnell has ferociously fought every version of the Democrats legislation, describing it as a “Frankenstein bill” designed to hand Schumer a pretext to get rid of Senate rules.
Democrats point to scores of bills in GOP-run state legislatures designed to make it harder to vote. Republicans believe the diversity of state laws are a strength of a system that allowed for significantly expanded voting options during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
“There is no factual standard by which any state in America is creating a civil rights crisis. Not compared to their own pre-pandemic baselines. Not comparing across with other states,” McConnell said earlier Wednesday.
He also blistered Democrats for their hypocrisy in utilizing the filibuster just last week to block a bill by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to sanction a Russian gas pipeline to Germany, a move that was strongly opposed by the Biden administration. While the bill won 55 Senate votes, it was still five short of the 60 necessary.
“This institution requires that major changes receive major buy-in,” McConnell said.
Schumer pitched the rule change as a one-time exemption, forcing a talking filibuster that would have required senators to stand on the floor and debate in order to block it. He said every senator would be allowed to speak twice before final passage of the voting rights legislation, a timeline that could stretch on for days if the lawmakers could muster the energy for the marathon. But no amendments would be allowed, a major sticking point with Manchin and Republicans.
While some Democrats were willing to concede the change was extraordinary, they argued the stakes merited unique action.
Schumer said this special circumstance would only apply to voting rights, which he categorized as the “fundamental wellspring of democracy.”
But McConnell dismissed that proposed rule change as simply “smoke and mirrors” for allowing a simple majority to pass such a blanket change to how elections are conducted.
“This is a plot to break the Senate,” he warned.
Many Democrats pointed out that McConnell pushed through a massive tax cut and shepherded Supreme Court Justices through a Senate that only required 51 votes.
And some are warning he’ll find a reason to get rid of it on other issues if he returns as majority leader.
“The filibuster has been eliminated for budget and tax issues, nominees, and now the debt limit. And anyone who thinks that Sen. McConnell will preserve the filibuster for other legislation the moment it’s in his interest to eliminate it simply hasn’t been paying attention,” said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the liberal advocacy group, Fix Our Senate.
With no immediate viable option for moving on voting rights, Democrats are likely to return to their attempts at passing a chunk or several pieces of the president’s Build Back Better legislation, a sweeping $2 trillion social welfare program that will likely be trimmed in the coming weeks.
Earlier on Wednesday at the White House, during a press conference designed to mark Thursday’s one year anniversary of his administration, Biden could only grin at McConnell’s recalcitrant opposition
“Mitch has been very clear,” Biden said, grinning at the podium. “He’ll do anything to prevent Biden from being a success.”
The president added, “I actually like Mitch McConnell, we like one another, but he has one straightforward objective: Make sure that there’s nothing I do that makes me look good … in his mind with the public at large. And that’s ok. I’m a big boy, I’ve been here before.”
In remarks to reporters, McConnell said this year’s midterm elections would be a report card on the Biden administration’s record on inflation, border security and standing up to Russia.
But Biden challenged the Republican leader to propose his own agenda in 2022.
“The fundamental question is, what’s Mitch for? What’s he for on immigration? What’s he for? What’s he proposing? What’s he for dealing with Russia?,” Biden asked. “What’s he for? What are they for? Everything’s a choice.”