WASHINGTON — By forcing a tense showdown in the Senate over voting rights, Sen. Chuck Schumer violated a cardinal rule of congressional leadership: Don’t put yourself forward unless you’re certain you have the votes to win.
Mr. Schumer, the New York Democrat and Majority Leader, certainly did not have the votes to get his party’s voting rights package approved on Wednesday. He and every other member of the Senate knew this long before Democrats managed to break a Republican filibuster against the legislation, then lost an attempt to overhaul the filibuster rules when two Democrats refused to follow.
The result left Democrats disappointed and distressed that they don’t yet have a legislative response to what they see as an alarming trend of Republican-led states imposing voting restrictions aimed at reducing turnout among minority voters.
But as they assessed Wednesday’s broad debate and strong party unity on voting rights — if not Senate procedure — Mr. Schumer and other Democrats said they believe they did the right thing even if, for them, it produced the wrong result.
Their view is that Democrats couldn’t identify new state voting laws as an existential threat to democracy and make suffrage their top priority, and then hesitate to hold a vote because they couldn’t prevail.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr Schumer, far from being downhearted, said he was proud of the way Democrats had handled the fight. He said Democratic senators and their allies recognized that such a battle could not be won in a single confrontation, but could never be won at all if the fight was not joined.
“On civil rights, it’s not linear,” Schumer said, pointing to a positive response from activists who urged Democrats to go to the mat on voting rights even if they weren’t going to get through. “You have to keep fighting. And they see the Democrats really fought for something we believed in, even though we couldn’t win.
“This issue is different from any other issue,” said Schumer, who dismissed as ludicrous criticism that Democrats should have waited when they could produce neither 60 votes to overcome the filibuster nor 50 votes from their caucus to unilaterally change the rules and pass the bill. “It’s the fundamental backbone of our country — the right to vote. But it is also the heart of our party.
It was not always obvious that the Democrats would fail.
Despite declared opposition to the rule change from two of their party’s centrists, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the Democrats hoped they could be persuaded that safeguarding the right to vote — and the protection of certain politically at-risk colleagues — outweighed the preservation of a characteristic part of Senate procedure. After all, many other Democrats who had long been reluctant to tinker with the filibuster had changed their minds due to emerging voting legislation in Republican-led states after the 2020 election.
But it was not to be. The two holdouts stuck firmly to their guns, a refusal to budge punctuated by Ms Sinema’s strong “yes” vote to uphold the rules.
Republicans remain mystified by Mr. Schumer’s strategy. They can’t understand why he would want to highlight the divisions between most of his caucus and Senators Manchin and Sinema, sparking popular outrage against two senators he will need on other issues as Democrats try to resurrect President Biden’s blocked agenda.
They can’t understand why he would force 47 of his members to join him in backing the fight against the filibuster in a losing cause, a vote Republicans will now try to exploit by accusing Democrats of a grab of power in pursuing progressive initiatives such as granting statehood to the District of Columbia and expanding the Supreme Court.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Minority Leader, called the debate that ended with the filibuster perhaps the most important day in Senate history. He said the vote will haunt Democrats, even if they didn’t pass.
“An unscrupulous attempt to seize power is not trivial simply because it fails,” he warned Democrats. “Voting to break up the Senate is not free just because a bipartisan majority of your colleagues has the wisdom to stop you.”
Democrats brushed off the remarks and said they found the shock cathartic. They said it had some benefits, including simply reminding lawmakers that the Senate is still capable of intense and consequential debate. Even some Republicans said the day-long rhetorical battle over the franchise, which saw dozens of senators speak, vote and engage in procedural wrangling, was a refreshing change from the usual rambling action and phoned buccaneers.
“It certainly produced the most secretive thing we’ve seen in a Senate debate in 15 years,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and one of the leading proponents of the containment filibuster. systematic.
Democrats said political pressure has also brought Republicans to the table discussing potential changes to federal election administration and presidential electoral vote counting to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. , opening a potential avenue for compromise.
Understanding the Battle for Voting Rights in the United States
Why is the right to vote a problem now? In 2020, as a result of the pandemic, millions have embraced early voting in person or by mail, especially among Democrats. Spurred by Donald Trump’s false claims about mail-in ballots in hopes of nullifying the election, the GOP has pursued a host of new voting restrictions.
Mr. McConnell said again on Thursday that Republicans would agree to changes to the voter count law to close loopholes that Donald J. Trump and his allies tried to use to overturn the election results.
“It is clearly flawed,” he said of the existing law. “It’s directly related to what happened on January 6, and we should be able to find a bipartisan way to fix it.”
Even President Nancy Pelosi, a founding member of the “don’t vote if you don’t have the votes” club, said Mr Schumer had done the right thing by forcing action.
“You had to have the vote,” she told reporters on Thursday, reflecting a view shared by progressive activists who had previously shown some frustration with Democrats.
“There was this legislative dance going on about who would vote for this and this political game inside Washington of ‘We don’t have the votes and we don’t want people to take a stand,'” Marc said. Morial, the head of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. “It was really important to put everyone on the case and put a marker.”
Mr Schumer said Democrats are still considering their future approach to voting rights and may break out pieces of legislation for separate votes.
“While last night’s vote was disappointing, that won’t stop Senate Democrats from continuing our fight against voter suppression, black money and partisan gerrymandering,” he said Thursday. “On such an important issue, not doing everything we could would have been unacceptable.”