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Democrats’ failure on filibuster reform will haunt them

A failed vote on rules changes guarantees little progress on voting rights — and many other policies.

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) catch an elevator to go to the Senate Chamber to vote on September 30, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 48-52 against changing the chamber’s filibuster rules, dooming much of Democrats’ agenda for the near term.

Democrats were ultimately split on the rules vote, with two opposing the change and 48 in favor of it. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) were the only Democrats who voted against the rules change, which would have made an exception to the 60-vote threshold many bills need to advance. No Republicans voted to support the reform.

Had it passed, the rules change would have enabled lawmakers to bring back a talking filibuster specifically for a voting rights bill that includes the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This reform would have required senators to hold the floor and make speeches in order to maintain their opposition to the bill. It also would have allowed senators to pass the voting rights bill with a simple majority once debate on the measure had ended. For other legislation, filibuster rules would have stayed as is.

Because of Manchin and Sinema’s longstanding opposition to filibuster reforms, the outcome of the vote wasn’t surprising. It did reveal, however, just how much support filibuster reform has within the Democratic caucus and highlighted a stark shift in the party’s position on the issue. As the vote indicated, opposition to filibuster reform is now limited to Manchin and Sinema, two of its most vocal critics.

Moderates like Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), meanwhile, were among those who voted in favor of reform, a clear sign that rules changes are no longer something that only more progressive Democrats advocate for. With President Joe Biden giving a major speech in favor of changing the rule last week, and now this vote, it’s apparent that support for filibuster reform has increasingly become a mainstream Democratic position.

The rules change needed the support of all 50 Democrats to be successful, and it would have had a major impact on Democrats’ ability to pass legislation. Since the vote on the rules change failed, voting rights bills as well as many other Democratic priorities like gun control and protections for workers’ rights to organize, have no chance of passing anytime soon, since they won’t be able to overcome Republican opposition.

Moving forward, many of Democrats’ bills are simply stuck. That makes Wednesday’s vote a huge missed opportunity for Democrats, who remain significantly limited in the policies they can advance ahead of this year’s midterms — when they could lose congressional control.

Voting rights — and many other bills — are at an impasse

Because the filibuster is still intact, a lot of Democratic bills have no path forward.

In the past year, Senate Republicans have already blocked voting rights bills four times, and none have signed onto the Freedom to Vote Act, a narrower piece of legislation crafted by Sen. Manchin (D-WV) in hopes of introducing legislation that would appeal to Republicans. Since Democrats have a tenuous 50-person majority, they need 10 Republicans to join them in order to overcome any filibuster. That support, however, has not materialized.

“Democrats have tried for months — months — to convince our Republican colleagues to join us on a bipartisan basis to begin a debate on these bills, to no avail,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer previously said.

It was their repeated failure to pass voting rights legislation that led Democrats to seriously consider altering the filibuster. And that failure is set to have staggering consequences, as 19 states have approved laws that restrict voting access and undercut the authority of regional election administrators. Democrats’ bills directly sought to counter many of these state laws by establishing a federal standard for voting access and stronger protections for election officials.

As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas has reported, the legislation wasn’t perfect. The bills fell short of confronting and addressing the issue of election subversion, or potential attempts by partisan legislatures and officials to overturn state election results, something former President Donald Trump had called for them to consider when he lost in 2020.

Still, the bills would have been an important check on states’ renewed attempts to limit access to the ballot, policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. If passed, they would have established 15 days of early voting, expanded access to vote by mail, provided election officials legal recourse to challenge potential removals, and prohibited partisan gerrymandering.

“It’s, in many ways, tailored to combat the worst types of voter suppression that we’ve seen,” says Daniel Weiner, co-director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

By voting to keep the filibuster as is, moderate Democrats have guaranteed that much of the party’s agenda will be stymied for now. Already, Republicans have blocked multiple bills including legislation to establish a committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection and a measure aimed at guaranteeing equal pay in the workplace.

Other bills, like a deal on police reform, have collapsed because they haven’t been able to garner sufficient Republican support. Policies intended to establish universal background checks for gun purchases, to protect workers’ right to organize, and to shield LGBTQ people from discrimination, have all languished, too.

That means Democrats will need to significantly scale back their ambitions if they want to pass anything at all. They’ll also need to focus on policies Republicans actually want to see enacted, measures that are set to be much narrower than what Democrats have proposed. Certain GOP members have signaled that there are, perhaps, bills they would be willing to work with Democrats on, including a version of a child allowance and, recently, a much more limited election reform bill.

Democrats will need to narrow their legislative ambitions

In recent weeks, some Republicans have said they’d be open to considering changes to the Electoral Count Act, which lays out Congress’s role in certifying presidential elections. These changes could clarify that the vice president isn’t able to overturn presidential election results, an act that Trump called on then-Vice President Mike Pence to consider.

Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Thune (R-SD), have said they’re open to considering this legislation, an indication that it could garner the GOP votes needed to pass.

But this legislation would do nothing to counter states’ attempts at voter suppression or partisan election administration, and it has widely been derided as a distraction by some Democrats who saw renewed Republican support for it as a way to keep moderates from changing the rules.

“I support reforming the Electoral Count Act. That said, reforming the Electoral Count Act will do virtually nothing to address the sweeping voter suppression and election subversion efforts taking place in Georgia, and in states and localities nationwide,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in a floor speech.

This is not to say that changes to the Electoral Count Act aren’t worth considering, though it does highlight how limited Democrats are when it comes to policies they want to pursue on elections or any other issue.

Because they need 10 Republicans on board, they’ll need to water down whatever it is they’re interested in, in order to secure adequate GOP support. In some instances, it may be that even a watered-down version of a bill isn’t palatable to enough Republicans, as was the case with Manchin’s voting rights bill.

Whatever policies materialize will probably be much narrower than Democrats had hoped for — they don’t really address the party’s goals on issues like voting rights. That’s the reality the party faces after its filibuster vote, one that severely reduces the policy impact it could otherwise have.