U.S. Senate Democrats return to voting rights with eye on filibuster

Voting rights activists rally at the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon following a three-day, 70-mile “Freedom to Vote Relay” from West Virginia, in Washington, U.S.

U.S. Senate Democrats will try to advance voting rights legislation in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition for a fourth time on Wednesday, amid pressure to break the deadlock by altering a key Senate rule as early as this month.

The Senate is due to vote on whether to begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore state voting requirements to prohibit racial discrimination that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The vote is slated for 2:15 p.m. (1815 GMT).

If Republicans block it as expected, which they have done three times this year with other voting bills, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will face new calls to abolish or alter the chamber’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 of the Senate’s 100 lawmakers to agree on most legislation.

“We can’t force so much as a debate if at least 10 Republicans don’t join us,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Tuesday, referring to the Senate’s 50-50 split.

“They owe it to the American people to come forward and debate their ideas. Simply standing silent with their arms crossed, refusing to allow the Senate to function, is unacceptable,” Schumer said.

Democrats expect support from Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. But otherwise, Republicans are expected to block debate, aides said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that the measure, named for the late civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, targets a “nonexistent” problem of racial discrimination in voting. “There’s no evidence right now anywhere in the country that states are engaged in suppressing the vote based upon race,” McConnell said.

Democrats have made election reform a priority in light of Republican state balloting restrictions passed in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. At least 19 states have passed laws making it harder to vote, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have said the laws will make it harder for Black and Hispanic voters – important Democratic Party voting blocs – to cast ballots.

President Joe Biden said last month that Democrats should “fundamentally alter the filibuster,” after Republicans blocked a bill to thwart restrictive state laws. But moderate Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema object to its elimination.

On Tuesday, some Senate Democrats said lawmakers could try to carve out a filibuster reform intended specifically to pass voting rights legislation by the end of the month.

“We have to move forward before the end of November, in my view, so that it can affect the elections that are upcoming,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told Reuters.

Unlike broader election reform bills that Democrats tried to advance earlier this year, the legislation would revitalize the 1965 Voting Rights Act, partly by establishing new criteria for determining which states and other jurisdictions need federal clearance before new voting practices take effect.

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