Filibuster Foils Biden Agenda
Senate Republicans for the second time this year used the filibuster to prevent a radical Democratic voting bill from advancing in the Senate.
The Freedom To Vote Act—a 780-page proposal that was rushed through the House before dying on the Senate floor last week—was aimed at overhauling the federal election system, replacing state jurisdiction over presidential elections with federal control.
The House approved a similar version of the legislation in March 2019, but it, too, was blocked by Senate Republicans.
Proponents of the Freedom to Vote Act insist it would make it easier for the eligible to vote, thereby “strengthening and increasing democracy.”
Its provisions would require states to enact automatic voter registration (eligible citizens are automatically registered to vote unless they decline), and to drop or modify requirements for signature and voter ID verification for casting mail-in ballots.
The bill would mandate 15 days of early voting, restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, and compel all states to allow mail-in voting, among other provisions.
Taking Aim at New Voting-Integrity Laws
Most importantly for Democrats, the bill would override new voting-integrity laws passed in Republican-led states, in the wake of the bitterly disputed 2020 presidential race.
Many believe the loosening of voting regulations during the pandemic opened the door to widespread fraud and tainted election results across the country.
Although lawsuits seeking to prove election fraud were dismissed by the courts, bizarre irregularities, broken chains of custody, and countless anomalies at too many polls fueled doubt in millions of Americans about the legitimacy of the election.
Outcries over a “stolen” election galvanized many state legislatures to pass laws tightening voting laws and election administration.
Democrats use inflammatory buzzwords for these new laws, casting them as “voter suppression,” and “election subversion,” claiming they target minorities. After the defeat of the Freedom to Vote Act, the emotionally fraught language was even more pronounced.
“Senate Republicans blocking debate today is an implicit endorsement of the horrid new voter suppression and election subversion laws pushed in conservative states across the country,” railed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, after the defeat of the Democrats’ bill.
Schumer alluded to allegations of voter fraud as “the big lie” that refuses to die.
“Across the country, the big lie – the big lie – has spread like a cancer!” Schumer exclaimed. “The Freedom to Vote Act would provide long-overdue remedies for all these concerns.”
“Democracy — the very soul of America — is at stake!” President Biden exhorted in a statement a day after the vote, vowing that the voting rights bill would yet prevail.
‘Stopping A Federal Takeover’
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, sounded a note of satisfaction after blocking the vote. “As long as Senate Democrats remain fixated on a federal takeover of local elections, this body will continue the job of …. stopping terrible ideas in their tracks,” he said.
Critics say the new legislation, by keeping in place the “emergency” measures required by the pandemic, and by mandating even more permissive voting policies for the future, would make it easy to commit voter fraud. The integrity of elections would be weakened followed by the erosion of public trust in government and elections.
When asked by a reporter whether the Freedom to Vote Act offered a compromise as Democrats promised it would, McConnell said, “It’s only a compromise in the sense that the left and the far-left argued among themselves about exactly how much power to grab and in which areas. The same rotten core is all still there.”
“[Democrats] want to force all 50 states to allow the absurd practice of ballot harvesting, where paid operatives can show up at polling places carrying a thick stack of filled-out ballots with other people’s names on them,” McConnell continued.
“They want to forbid states from implementing voter ID or doing simple things like checking their voter rolls against change-of-address submissions, or removing the names of dead voters. They want to remove nearly every protection on absentee voting, making the practice a permanent norm, even post-pandemic.”
Political analysts who studied the bill said it would have allowed states to divert federal dollars to fund political campaigns, and would erode free speech protections by forcing political nonprofits to disclose donors.
Even tiny or brand-new grassroots organizations would have to list their top donors on every internet ad and read them out on every radio ad. For the first time, groups that support or oppose federal judicial nominees would be forced to disclose who has given them funds,” wrote American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
“A public file or database of donor information related to any political cause or campaign would subject countless Americans to public scrutiny. In today’s ‘cancel culture,’ that might be downright dangerous.”
Ditch The Filibuster?
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to enact ambitious new programs and reforms – including on voting rights, healthcare, gun control, the environment and education.
He reportedly imagined himself to be a historic president who could implement sweeping change and rescue a nation facing a disastrous crisis. In the first 100 days of his presidency, however, reality has set in.
Most of Biden’s big goals require the support of Congress. And while the legislative branch is narrowly controlled by his party, passage of the president’s agenda, as recent events indicate, is far from guaranteed.
The failure of the Freedom to Vote Act followed other stalled pieces of the Democratic agenda, thanks to Republican filibustering. Democrats are now coalescing around the goal of eliminating the filibuster, either by rendering it impotent by changing the rules or by doing away with the tradition altogether.
Dating back in its earliest form to 1917, a filibuster is a procedural rule in the Senate that requires 60 votes to bring a bill to a vote.
Unless a supermajority of 60 senators out of 100 votes to end debate on a given bill and put it to a full Senate vote, the debate can technically go on forever. Senators can continuously hold the floor, talking a proposal to death, until its proponents give up and move on to other business.
Although the Constitution makes no mention of filibusters, long-winded Senate speeches became an increasingly common tactic in the 19th century.
By 1917, most senators were ready to implement a change. They agreed that a vote by a two-thirds majority could end debate. But getting two-thirds of the Senate was tough, so filibusters continued.
During the sixties, the practice became identified with Southern senators who often used them to block civil rights laws. The image of a lone senator launching into impassioned hours-long debate characterized these filibusters from earlier decades.
The Senate next modified the filibuster rule in 1975, lowering the votes required to end debate to the three-fifths mark, or 60 out of the 100-seat chamber.
It also changed the process so filibustering senators only needed to signal their intent to block legislation, and not physically engage in debate on the floor of the chamber.
The goal was to allow the Senate to set the contested legislation aside and continue with other business, avoiding lengthy delays and gridlock.
The move was intended to prevent opposition to a single bill from bringing all work to a grinding halt, but it also had the effect of profoundly changing the nature of the filibuster.
From being an exhausting marathon involving lengthy speeches, it metamorphosed into a mere objection, or threat to object. No longer did an individual have to mount a speech that would hold his audience hostage for several hours. That became a thing of the past.
The Modern Filibuster
Most contemporary filibusters require one or two senators to just threaten to drag out debate indefinitely. That means something as simple as an email announcing an objection to the legislation on the Senate floor can trigger a filibuster. The objecting Senator does not even have to be present.
What usually happens is that the filibuster rule forces a level of cooperation between the political parties, so that the final legislation has bipartisan backing.
The new mode of filibustering has caused the practice to greatly escalate in frequency. According to US senate records, there were 23 filibusters in 1977. Last year there were 328. The overuse of the practice has spurred attempts to rein it in.
In 2013 and 2017, the Senate changed the rules to allow a simple majority vote on cabinet and judicial nominations. Certain budgetary measures, too, can now avoid a filibuster through a process called “reconciliation.”
The Biden administration used reconciliation to allow a simple majority to pass his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. With only 50 Democrats in the Senate, Biden would have needed 10 Republican votes to break a filibuster under normal rules.
Reconciliation, however, is an extremely limited legislative tool. In addition to limits on what senators can define as a ‘budget’ issue, the move can only be used once per fiscal year.
Progressive Democrats are therefore trying to get Biden on board with blowing up the filibuster, to accomplish the big ticket goals on their agenda. Not all party members are wholly in favor of gutting the practice.
Several filibuster reform ideas have been floated that could stop short of ending it. They include a “carve-out” or exemption just for voting rights bills and limiting the number of filibusters against any one bill.
A third option is forcing those waging a filibuster to remain standing and speaking on the Senate floor just as in times gone by—until one side relents.
The problem is that Democrats would need all their members on board for any of these moves. The fly in the ointment is that two senators, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have voiced objections when it comes to election overhaul, insisting the issue needs bipartisan support.
Democratic Senators Dissent
In a statement on filibuster reform in a Washington Post op-ed, Sen. Sinema wrote: “To those who want to eliminate the filibuster to pass the voting-rights legislation which I support, I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did so, only to see that very legislation rescinded a few years from now (once political power falls to the opposite party), and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?
“To those who say that we must make a choice between the filibuster and ‘X,’ I say this is a false choice,” Sinema said on another occasion. “The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively . . . the way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior.”
Both Senators Simena and Manchin believe that voting rights legislation enacted via a party-line vote is essentially worthless, as the prospect of its being repealed as soon as the majority party leaves office is all but guaranteed.
President Biden appeared to lash out at these two “moderates” last week, complaining that his legislative agenda was held up because he “only has a majority of four votes in the house, and a tie in the Senate with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.”
The Roadblock in Biden’s Path
As America emerges from the pandemic, Democratic progressives are flexing their muscles, apparently intent on overturning as many traditions as the public will allow.
President Biden seems to be intoxicated by big dreams when it comes to his agenda — sweeping infrastructure bills, climate change legislation, voting rights legislation, immigration reform, gun control and raising the minimum wage are all part of the discussion.
Behind the scenes, there is talk of packing the Supreme Court. Moves to impose momentous changes on this institution were made with the president’s appointment of a special commission this month, to determine whether to impose limits on the terms served by Supreme Court justices.
The filibuster looks likely to stop all these dreams from becoming reality. That is why the filibuster must go, according to a majority of Democrats, especially progressives. And they are urging Biden to blow it up.
“But there is the small problem that majorities are never permanent,” Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned in a WSJ op-ed. “If the Democrats kill the legislative filibuster…as soon as Republicans wind up back in control, we wouldn’t stop at erasing every liberal change that hurt the country.
“We’d strengthen America with all kinds of conservative policies with zero input from the other side,” the Kentucky senator wrote.
“How about a nationwide right-to-work law? Defunding Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities (where illegal immigrants are not prosecuted) on day one? How about a whole new era of domestic energy production? Sweeping new protections for the right to life of the unborn? Massive hardening of security on our southern border?
“The pendulum would swing both ways, and it would swing hard.”
New Voting-Integrity Laws Passed by State Legislatures
As of July, 17 states had enacted 32 laws closing loopholes in the voting process, including restricting ballot drop boxes; restricting the timeframe for early voting; tightening voter ID rules; limiting or banning ballot “harvesting,” and adding requirements to mail-in ballots.
Other measures limit the power of local officials to oversee elections and stop private donors from funding operational election budgets, according to the Washington Times.
Georgia and Arizona led the way in the passing of voting-integrity laws, followed by Iowa, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.
In recent months, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming have all passed voting legislation aimed at making it harder to cheat.
A few examples, according to NPR: In Georgia, the new rules prevent proactively sending mail-in ballot applications to voters; require voters to submit verified identification with their application; and shorten the time frame for the application process to take place.
Like several other states, Georgia added new restrictions on the use of mail-in drop boxes, and prohibited electioneering tactics such as providing food or water to people waiting in line to vote in person.
Legislators in Georgia also stripped certain powers from the secretary of state, removing that official as chair of the State Election Board and allowing the General Assembly to select his or her replacement.
In Texas, the new legislation includes new ID requirements for people voting by mail, and gives voters new opportunities to correct mistakes with their mail ballots. It also creates new criminal penalties for people who assist voters at the polls; bans drive-thru voting and extended voting hours; and empowers poll watchers to observe the voting without obstruction.
The new law also takes steps to expand access to voting, including guaranteeing a minimum number of ballot drop boxes in each county and providing more resources for localities to address long lines for in-person voting.
Iowa was among the first states to approve a voting-integrity bill, signed into law in early March by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. As in Georgia, the new law shortens the application period for mail ballots and bars election officials from proactively sending application forms to voters.
In Iowa, county auditors can now face criminal charges if they do not follow certain procedures in purging voter rolls of names of people who have died, moved away, or are ineligible to vote.
The early voting period — and voting hours on Election Day — are shorter. Local officials’ discretion in placing drop boxes is curtailed.
States that Loosened Rules, Expanding Access to Voting
In contrast to the voter-integrity laws passed in the above-mentioned states, 17 states have passed into law measures that have moved in the opposite direction, expanding access to voting, and formalizing more permissive policies.
These include Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
A few examples: Connecticut has restored voting rights for ex-convicts on parole, and increased voter registration access. Amendments that would require approval by voters, call for in-person early voting and “no-excuse-necessary” absentee voting.
New measures in Maryland call for a permanent absentee voter list, authorize and regulate drop-box use, and expand early voting centers and hours.
Nevada is among the states that have newly established a vote-by-mail system, in which all eligible voters receive a ballot in the mail. Among its other provisions, the new law also expands drop boxes and eases voter registration.
New Jersey has expanded early voting for all eligible voters.
In New York, one new law eases voter registration. Lawmakers also proposed constitutional amendments that would enable no-excuse absentee voting (by mail) and extend the voter registration deadline past the former cut-off point of ten days before Election Day.
U.S. Sen. Moran: Dems’ Voting Bill Was Designed to Fail
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kan., spoke on the Senate floor about the For the People Act (the predecessor to The Freedom To Vote Act that was earlier defeated in the Senate).
He used the moment to highlight the importance of maintaining the filibuster, the 60 vote threshold needed to pass legislation.
“Yesterday, the Democrats attempted an unprecedented power grab in the Senate that in my view clearly would have affected the sanctity of our elections and violated the Constitution,” said Sen. Moran.
“The vote was designed to fail in order to pressure Democratic Senators into altering the rules of the Senate and rendering this place a majority-run institution. Should the legislative filibuster meet its demise at the hands of this Senate, because Democrats decide that the rules that have been in place for decades should be changed overnight, the august United States Senate will be condemned to a partisan spectacle.”
“This 60-vote rule is designed to moderate both sides of a question to a position that is more acceptable to the American people than anything we might decide on our own, Republican or Democrat,” continued Sen. Moran.
“America is better when we work together, and 60 votes requires us to do that.”