This year’s annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work turned into a political name-and-shame-fest Monday—focused solely on Congress’ failure to pass substantive voting rights reforms.
The MLK family last month began a messaging campaign around the holiday, saying there can be no true celebration of his life without legislation to defend the equality he fought for. On Monday, they gathered for a march across Washington, D.C.’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, trudging through icy weather following overnight snow in the city.
Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King and their daughter Yolanda Renee King spoke following the march, calling on Congress to enact substantive voting legislation, with a particular duo of lawmakers in mind.
“A few people stand in the way. Not just Republicans, every one of them has taken any immoral position against voting rights. But that's not who I want to talk about today,” King III said. “I’m talking about two Democratic Senators: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-AZ).”
Last week, it became clear—as if it weren’t already—that there’s no navigable path forward for current Democratic proposals to establish national standards for voting rights. Both Manchin and Sinema said Thursday their opinion on discarding the filibuster for voting rights hasn’t changed. Even a presidential visit to the Capitol and a special meeting between the president and the two senators Thursday night couldn’t sway them.
“To them, the filibuster is sacred, except for when it’s not…” King said, chastising Sinema and Manchin for accepting filibuster carveouts like reconciliation and a recently created carveout for raising the debt limit. “History will not remember them kindly.”
A number of Democratic lawmakers also gathered in New York on Monday, commemorating the holiday by calling for action on voting rights, among other Democratic priorities.
“Do away with the filibuster. It’s already been done away with for the debt ceiling legislation that was needed just a few weeks back. So why not for voting rights?” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) said. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) also called out Republicans, Sinema and Manchin for blocking a number of Democratic priorities in the Senate, including voting rights and police reform, from moving forward.
“The Senate is not doing its job,” he said.
And some Democrats told their fellow members at large to put up or hush up on this MLK holiday.
“If you can't honor Dr. King by supporting voting rights and the John Lewis Act, then at least do him the courtesy of shutting the hell up today,” retiring Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) tweeted Monday.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer canceled this week’s Senate recess and said Democrats would return to keep trying for voting-rights reform. When senators return Tuesday—allowing time for a winter storm to pass through town and for Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) to get through his coronavirus quarantine—they’re expected to move forward with votes on whether to move forward on their blended voting bill.
If that doesn’t reach its 60-vote threshold, which it likely won’t, they’ll vote on changing the rules to allow voting rights bills to pass by simple majority next.
“Members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as this one,” Schumer said on the floor Thursday night. “And we will proceed.”
Democrats are aware of their uphill battle for voting rights reforms. But they say forcing a debate on the bill and putting Republicans on the record is a worthwhile fight, even if it doesn’t amount to passage this go around.
Members of the administration last week signaled a pragmatist approach to continuing talks. Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday said she’d be continuing with “extensive meetings and discussions about how we can see this through.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also said Biden was “committed to continuing to fight.”
“He’s gonna stay at it,” Psaki said.
There are, of course, political calculations to be made in moving forward on voting rights, too.
Lanae Erickson, senior vice president of policy at Third Way, a centrist-Democratic think tank, told The Daily Beast she believes “voters aren’t going to give credit for a failed vote OR no vote. The only path forward is getting it across the finish line,” she said.
Marcela Mulholland, political director at Data For Progress, said she believes if voting rights can’t pass this go around, they should remain a top priority. But Democrats will still need to pivot to other tangible wins before the midterm elections, she said.
Delivering policy wins, like Build Back Better or other Democratic priorities, will boost voter enthusiasm and help Democrats build more political power, Mulholland said. More Democratic enthusiasm could lead to more elected Democrats—potentially ones willing to change Senate rules in ways Manchin and Sinema are not.
“We need to look at that situation and be honest about the fact that we need to build more political power,” Mulholland said. “We need to win more seats in the Senate. And the way that you do that… is by passing popular legislation.”