Democrats failing to pass the latest voting rights bill will be a 'make-or-break moment' for filibuster reform, according to progressive activists

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Democrats failing to pass the latest voting rights bill will be a 'make-or-break moment' for filibuster reform, according to progressive activists
Virginia Shadron, of Atlanta, holds an anti-filibuster sign with the face of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of R-Ky., on it, during a rally in support of voting rights, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
  • Senate Republicans all blocked a major voting rights bill for the 2nd time this year.
  • Progressive activists are hoping it'll be a make-or-break moment for filibuster reform.

Progressive activists are hoping the Senate Republicans blocking debate on a major voting rights bill for the second time this year will trigger a critical "make-or-break moment" within the Democratic Party that will push forward reforms to the modern-day Senate filibuster.

All 50 GOP Senators filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, a wide-ranging Democratic voting rights and election reform bill, on Wednesday. Democrats and activists have described the legislation as Congress' last chance to quash a rise in new laws in GOP-controlled states that tighten voting rules and give partisan lawmakers more control over election administration.

Republicans have criticized the bill as a massive federal overreach into states' authority to run their own elections, and, despite Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's attempts to get his GOP colleagues on board, none voted to proceed to debate on it.

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"There is no doubt that it will be a make-or-break moment for Senate Democrats and our democracy," Eli Zupnick, spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, told reporters on a Tuesday call with filibuster reform advocates. "Despite Senator Manchin's good-faith outreach, there are simply aren't 10 Republicans willing to work with Democrats on this. Senate Democrats can have the filibuster, or they defend our democracy. There is no third option, and we're running out of time."

The current filibuster rules require a three-fifths majority to advance to debate on most legislation, creating an uphill battle to passing much of President Joe Biden administration's non-economic agenda in a Senate split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Progressives see it as an archaic rule rooted in racism that today contributes to gridlock and dysfunction.

Democrats failing to pass the latest voting rights bill will be a 'make-or-break moment' for filibuster reform, according to progressive activists
Sen. Joe Manchin tried and failed to get Senate Republicans on board with expansive voting rights legislation. Scott J. Applewhite/AP

Aside from eliminating the rules altogether, some have suggested lowering the threshold to be able to pass voting rights and other civil rights legislation with a simple majority. Other proposals include returning to the talking filibuster or requiring 41 Senators to physically be on the Senate floor to block debate on legislation.

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But Manchin and Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona have argued that the current filibuster rules foster bipartisanship by forcing the parties to work together, and that Democrats lowering the filibuster threshold to pass certain legislation with a simple majority would come back to bite them when Republicans retake control of the chamber.

But progressives say that Democrats shouldn't assume that the filibuster will always be there to rein in the other party, with Zupnick going as far to call it "a dead rule walking."

"I think the worst-case scenario for us is to not pass the things we can pass when Democrats are in power in the hopes of preserving this defensive tool, and then having Republicans get rid of it as soon as it stands in their way and passing the bad things we're afraid of anyway," Adam Jentleson, executive director of Battle Born Collective and author of "Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate," told Insider.

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Democrats failing to pass the latest voting rights bill will be a 'make-or-break moment' for filibuster reform, according to progressive activists
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, left, described his own "evolution" on the filibuster. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

'Democracy is more important than a Senate rule.'

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats and was initially skeptical of filibuster reform, described his own "evolution" on the issue during a recent call with reporters

"It's a tough question. I don't think it's an easy call at all. All the predictions are that the Republicans will take over the Senate in two years has to be reckoned with," he told Insider during the call on Tuesday. "But the alternative is to allow these voter restriction laws and the changing of the mechanics in the legislature to go forward, and then you're stuck with the results. I think I've come down and decided that democracy is is more important than a Senate rule."

Democrats are running out of time to make the most of their precarious legislative trifecta before 2022, an election year during which there will be far less political will to pass massive legislative packages.

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The White House has put the bulk of its political muscle behind passing the parts Biden's agenda it could secure enough bipartisan support for to avoid the filibuster (like the bipartisan infrastructure bill) or can pass on a party-line basis using the budget reconciliation process, like the Build Back Better Act.

The rush to pass both components of Biden's economic agenda will likely to push filibuster reform to the back burner, but activists remain hopeful that Manchin will shift his thinking on the issue.

"The reality of this world is that Build Back Better will consume massive amounts of oxygen as long as it's left undone," Jentleson said. "But I think that this vote is a necessary part of the process that Senator Manchin is going through."

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"At the very least, it'll be a marker along the path towards eventual reform," he added. "Having this vote, having it fail, and showing that there are not 10 Republicans who are not willing to come forward and save our democracy is an important and necessary part of the process."

Democrats failing to pass the latest voting rights bill will be a 'make-or-break moment' for filibuster reform, according to progressive activists
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on voting rights at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

'A Nixon-going-to-China moment.'

Beyond the halls of the Senate, democracy activists' patience with the White House is wearing increasingly thin.

Their frustrations stem largely from the disconnect between Biden describing the new GOP election laws as "the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War" and his failure to endorse procedural changes to address it on the federal level.

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On Tuesday, the White House said they would continue to press for federal election reform "through legislation, executive actions, outreach, the bully pulpit, and all other means available" - but made no mention of the filibuster.

Jentleson argued that the White House's hands are less tied than then they may seem due to the significant authority Biden holds over matters concerning the Senate, where he served for 36 years.

"For Joe Biden to come out in support of filibuster reform would be a Nixon-going-to-China moment on this issue," he said. "He has unique levels of credibility on this, and I think would be able to persuade recalcitrant Senators in a way that few other people in our political system could do."

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