Senator Kyrsten Sinema is confused. At a private caucus meeting last week, she pointedly asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer why Democrats can’t overcome Republican opposition to the major ethics and voting rights reforms that Joe Biden promised voters, and that over 60 percent of Americans across party lines support. But Sinema wasn’t talking about the For the People Act that Schumer hopes to squeak through. She was referring to her own competing legislation.
Not to be outdone, last week Senator Joe Manchin announced his own plan to address the GOP’s nationwide war on voting rights, a not-so-subtle way of saying he won’t be signing on to Schumer’s consensus bill, either.
If Sinema and Manchin breaking ranks didn’t complicate matters enough, neither is willing to end or even modify the filibuster to get voting rights passed. Instead, they’re telling Democrats—and the millions of Americans at risk of losing their votes in 2022 and beyond—to trust in the myth of Senate bipartisanship. So Schumer should issue an ultimatum: find 10 Republicans to pass your bill or Democrats are taking down the filibuster.
Without any modifications to the filibuster, Manchin and Sinema will need to come up with 10 Republican senators willing to oppose the GOP’s sweeping attempts to gut the right to vote. Good luck—almost 90 percent of all voting-related legislation in the states this year has come from Republican lawmakers.
Spoiler alert: Those bills aren’t about helping voters, but stopping them. In Georgia, Republicans remain so traumatized by Biden’s upset victory that they’re now considering targeting the same suburbs that once elected Newt Gingrich with a new round of Trump-inspired voter suppression laws.
Voter suppression is one of the few unifying ideas left in a Republican Party hollowed out and pillaged by Trumpism. Manchin has as much chance at persuading them to undermine their own electoral fortunes as he does at convincing Elizabeth Warren to pass a tax cut for Big Tech.
Manchin made media hay of a joint statement calling for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act that he authored with GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, but Murkowski has pointedly not signed on to any of the voting rights bills before the Senate. And even if she did, Senate Republicans have abandoned Murkowski for her insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump.
“Inaction is not an option,” Manchin and Murkowski wrote. “Congress must come together—just as we have done time and again—to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all.”
Left unsaid in that soaring rhetoric is the fact that the Senate that voted 77-19 to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not in thrall to a far right as dominant as today’s MAGA movement. Manchin doesn’t seem to notice or care that the broad bipartisan coalition of Rockefeller Republicans and progressive Democrats who passed the original VRA hasn’t existed for over 40 years. Those critical liberal Republicans, now entirely extinct, didn’t even survive the GOP’s rightward lurch at the end of the 1970s.
For his part, Biden seems committed to fostering some kind of progress on voting rights. The president has lavished attention on both Manchin and Sinema, despite or because of their resistance to both his infrastructure plan and other Democrats’ dream of ending the filibuster. He doesn’t have much of a choice. Biden has excoriated Republican voter suppression efforts in Georgia, calling them “Jim Crow in the 21st century” and arguing that “we have a moral and constitutional obligation to act.”
Biden is acutely aware that Black voters—more than any other single group—are responsible for installing him in the White House. He also knows that as Manchin and Sinema go speed-dating for GOP votes, Republicans in the states are busy chipping away at what few voter protections remain.
When Sinema and Manchin fail to deliver on their big talk about the power of bipartisanship, Schumer and Senate Democrats must be prepared to force a serious effort to kill the filibuster. Without it, GOP efforts to undermine the vote in 2022 and 2024 will proceed with impunity, undermining the marginalized communities that delivered a Democratic Senate and White House on the explicit promise that they would be protected from Republican reprisals.
Those reprisals are now here, and Senate Democrats are nowhere to be found.
Earlier this month Florida Governor and rumored 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping voter suppression law restricting the use of vote-by-mail and ballot drop boxes, both of which helped Black Democrats in Georgia overcome intentionally long lines and shuttered polling places in 2020. DeSantis made sure his supporters saw his attack on voting rights by arranging to sign the legislation live on Fox & Friends, a right-wing morning show that now explicitly serves as the GOP press office. And that was just one of the nearly 3,000 draconian voter suppression bills introduced this year.
Every day of inaction to protect voting rights is another day for Republican operatives in Congress and in the states to purge voter lists, as Mississippi is doing, or enact tough new voter ID requirements while closing DMVs, as North Carolina Republicans did. Voters can’t afford to wait while Manchin talks up his role as the Great Compromiser—without ever striking a compromise in Democrats’ favor.
The activist base of the Democratic Party has reached its boiling point with Sinema and Manchin’s empty promises that bipartisan victories are just around the corner. If moderate Democratic senators can create a viable voting rights plan with Republican buy-in, it will deserve high praise for achieving the impossible.
But if they fail, Schumer and Biden must be prepared to take all steps necessary to ensure the right to vote is protected from unprecedented Trumpist attacks. At least Sinema and Manchin can say they tried.