Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights groups argued is vital for protecting democracy was blocked Wednesday by a Republican filibuster, a setback for President Joe Biden and his party after a raw, emotional debate.
Democrats were poised to immediately pivot to voting on a Senate rules change as a way to overcome the filibuster and approve the bill with a simple majority. But the rules change was also headed toward defeat, as President Biden has been unable to persuade two holdout senators in his own party, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to change the Senate procedures for this one bill.
"This is not just another routine day in the Senate, this is a moral moment," said Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.
The initial vote was 49-51, short of the 60 votes needed to advance over the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, voted no for procedural reasons so Democrats can revisit the legislation.
The nighttime voting capped a day of piercing debate that carried echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed in lengthy speeches by opponents of civil rights legislation.
Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws making it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to cast a potentially tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate.
Democrats decided to press ahead despite the potential for high-stakes defeat at a tumultuous time for President Biden and his party. President Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling out in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats' inability to unite around their own goals. But the Democrats wanted to force senators on the record — even their own party's holdouts — to show voters where they stand.
"I haven't given up," President Biden said earlier at a White House news conference.
Sinema and Manchin have withstood an onslaught of criticism from Black leaders and civil rights organizations, and they risk further political fallout as other groups and even their own colleagues threaten to yank campaign support.
Schumer contended the fight is not over and he ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not end up hurting voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 presidential election.
The Democrats' bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic — and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. It has passed the House.
Both Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation but are unwilling to change Senate rules. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority — Vice President Harris can break a tie — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.
Instead, Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a "talking filibuster" on this one bill. It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
But even that is expected to fail because Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.
Emotions were on display during the floor debate.
When Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asked Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky whether he would pause for a question, McConnell left the chamber, refusing to respond.
Durbin said he would have asked McConnell, "Does he really believe that there's no evidence of voter suppression?"
The No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said at one point, "I am not a racist."
McConnell, who led his party in doing away with the filibuster's 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees during Donald Trump's presidency, warned against changing the rules again.
McConnell derided the "fake hysteria" from Democrats over the states' new voting laws and called the pending bill a federal takeover of election systems. He said doing away with filibuster rules would "break the Senate."
Manchin drew a roomful of senators for his own speech, upstaging the president's news conference and defending the filibuster. He said majority rule would only "add fuel to the fire" and it was "dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart."
"For those who say bipartisanship is impossible, we have proven them wrong," Manchin said, citing the recent infrastructure bill he helped pass into law. "We can do it again. ... We can make it easier to vote."
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus walked across the Capitol building for the proceedings. "We want this Senate to act today in a favorable way. But if it don't, we ain't giving up," said Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress.
Manchin did open the door to a more tailored package of voting law changes, including to the Electoral Count Act, which was tested during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. He said senators from both parties are working on that and it could draw Republican support.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said a bipartisan coalition should work on legislation to ensure voter access, particularly in far-flung areas like her state, and to shore up Americans' faith in democracy.
"We don't need, we do not need a repeat of 2020 when by all accounts our last president, having lost the election, sought to change the results," said Murkowski.
She said the Senate debate had declined to a troubling state: "You're either a racist or a hypocrite. Really, really? Is that where we are?"
Once reluctant himself to change Senate rules, President Biden has stepped up his pressure on senators to do just that. But the push from the White House, including President Biden's blistering speech last week in Atlanta comparing opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late.
At one point Democratic senators huddled in the cloakroom, in deep discussion with Manchin. Sinema sat in her chair throughout the debate, largely glued to her phone.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.