Calls mounted Wednesday for U.S. Senate Democrats to reform or abolish the filibuster after all but one of the chamber's Republicans blocked yet another voting rights bill.
"We can protect our democracy, or we can preserve the filibuster."
Only Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined Democrats to support a full floor debate on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, the House-approved bill would restore key protections from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.
"John Lewis dedicated his life to being a fierce and resilient champion for democracy in the face of impossible odds. He quite literally put his life on the line to protect our democracy from sometimes violent attacks by conservatives and right-wing extremists seeking to undermine the right to vote," said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible.
"The bill that bears his name, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, joined a slew of critical democracy reforms that have been blocked this year because of the outdated, racist filibuster—even with the last-minute appearance of a single Republican, Lisa Murkowski, willing to vote in favor," she said. "If Senate Democrats truly want to honor the legacy of Congressman Lewis and pass meaningful democracy reform, they must go beyond naming a bill after him and bringing it to the floor for a performative vote."
"We've had enough of these theatrics," Hatcher-Mays declared. "We all know that what comes next is what needs to come first: Senate Democrats must fix the Senate rules and remove the filibuster from the Senate Republicans' obstructionist toolbox."
The procedural vote follows Republicans in the evenly split Senate blocking a bold voting rights package called the For the People Act—twice—as well as a comprise bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. Progressives have responded to the GOP obstruction with growing demands that Democrats change or kill the filibuster to protect and expand ballot access nationwide.
"What has happened to our country?" Democracy Initiative executive director Charly Carter asked Wednesday, pointing out that "in 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed with a unanimous vote in the Senate and was signed into law by a Republican president."
In fact, as Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn noted, Murkowski was "one of 10 current Senate Republicans who voted for the Voting Rights Act reauthorization when it passed the Senate 98-0 in 2006. Today, the other nine turned their backs on the freedom to vote."
While "the right to vote is not and should never be a partisan issue," Republican's latest refusal to recognize that "presents a stark choice" for President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the rest of the chamber's Democrats, Carter concluded, warning that "we can protect our democracy, or we can preserve the filibuster."
Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and a co-chair of the Democracy Initiative board of directors, agreed that "the path forward is clear: We must fix or nix the filibuster so that bills with majority support can be debated and come to a vote on the Senate floor."
Hobert Flynn, another co-chair of the Democracy Initiative board, highlighted the filibuster's history as well as recent attacks on voting rights, arguing that "the Senate loophole long used to stymie civil rights legislation in the 1960s must not be abused again to defend the new Jim Crow laws being passed across the country."
"Lewis fought his entire life for the protection of fair, democratic principles, and the House and Senate must act now to honor his legacy."
"It is unconscionable that there are no longer even 10 Senate Republicans today who will vote to have a debate on protecting our freedom to vote," she said. "Senate Democrats must reform the filibuster to pass these critically important bills to protect every American's freedom to vote."
Supporters of the bill have long argued that its passage is essential to not only serve American voters and democracy but also honor the legacy of Lewis, who was brutally beaten by police on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965 for leading civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
"This is not the end for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or Freedom to Vote Act. Now, the Senate must do whatever it takes to pass these bills," said Greenpeace USA democracy campaign director Folabi Olagbaju. "Lewis fought his entire life for the protection of fair, democratic principles, and the House and Senate must act now to honor his legacy."
Underscoring why "failure is not an option," Olagbaju explained that "19 states have already enacted 33 laws that erect barriers to the ballot box for millions of Americans" and "together, this widely popular, commonsense legislation would stop racist anti-voter bills dead in their tracks."
As Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, put it: "The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would help identify barriers that could silence Black, Latino, Indigenous, young, and new Americans and ensure we all have an equal say in the decisions that impact our lives."
While calling out the "anti-voter" Republicans who "have yet again attacked the most basic principle of our democracy," Henderson suggested that "the bipartisan vote shows that we can find common ground."
However, some Senate Democrats framed the vote as evidence that change is needed now.
The New York Times reported on some top Democrats' remarks:
"At some point, our democracy has to move along," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and chairman of the Rules Committee. "And that's the discussion we'll be having."
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, was more blunt.
"If it means an exemption to the filibuster, then I believe we should do it," she said. "We cannot let a Senate procedure stop us from protecting the right to vote in the United States of America."
Speaking on the Senate floor after the vote, Schumer thanked Murkowski for "working with us in good faith on this bill," while noting that "down to the last member, the rest of the Republican conference has refused to engage, refused to debate, even refused to acknowledge that our country faces a serious threat to democracy."
"Just because Republicans will not join us doesn't mean Democrats will stop fighting," he vowed. "This is too important. We will continue to fight for voting rights and find an alternative path forward, even if it means going at it alone to defend the most fundamental liberty we have as citizens."