It was probably always going to end this way.
The Senate is set to vote on a pair of voting rights bills Democrats see as crucial to protecting Democracy on Wednesday evening. Those bills will fail. Then Democrats’ efforts to change the filibuster will fail too.
“Win, lose or draw, we are going to vote,” a fatalistic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“We know it’s an uphill fight,” Schumer later conceded. “But whenever this chamber confronts a question this important, one so vital to our country, you don’t slide it off the table and say never mind.”
None of this is a surprise. But it comes after a weekslong renewed effort from Schumer, President Joe Biden, and other Democrats to move the legislation that they knew faced universal opposition from Senate Republicans. And Democrats have known for months that they couldn’t get the bill through the Senate because two of their own members oppose making any changes to the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to move most legislation. No filibuster changes means no federal voting rights legislation, and Democrats knew they were short on votes heading into this battle. Plainly put, they knew from the start that they were likely to fail.
Liberal and civil rights groups pushed hard for Democrats to make this a top priority in the new year, hoping the pressure campaign could convince Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to change their minds on the filibuster. Barring that, Democrats hoped that the fight would energize their base, put political pressure on Republicans and give Democrats a cause to run on in the midterms. The timing of the fight—stretching from the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot through Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—gave Democrats symbolic heft in their push for voting rights.
Biden and Schumer reengaged in this fight knowing they were likely to lose it in the Senate, but hoping it would turn into a political winner. Democratic activists did all they could to pressure Sinema and Manchin to reconsider.
But the biggest contrast that was drawn in this debate was between the vast majority of Senate Democrats who eventually decided that the voting rights bills were important enough to change the filibuster, and the two that haven’t. Manchin and Sinema support the underlying voting rights bills, and have both long said they’d vote for them, but wouldn’t support changing the filibuster. That includes rejecting an attempted compromise from Democratic leadership to make smaller changes, like putting the onus on the minority to find 41 votes to block legislation, rather than the current rule which forces the majority to muster 60 votes to pass anything.
Instead, the result is a deeper schisms between Democrats and Manchin and Sinema, weeks of news coverage that largely focused on Democrats’ internal fights and failure to move the bill, and a activist base that’s demoralized about another likely defeat and seems just as furious at Manchin and Sinema for failing to pass the bills as at Republicans.
The bills are unquestionably important. Republicans have passed legislation making it harder to vote in numerous states including Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, and Texas, and have bills in the works in multiple other states that could become law. But it has been clear for months that Democrats didn’t have the votes to pass either bill—barring a sudden change of heart from Manchin and Sinema.
Biden, who like most Senate Democrats used to support the filibuster as a key way to protect minority rights, announced in late December that he supported a carve-out to protect voting rights. He upped the ante with a speech last week in Atlanta, King’s hometown, where he called GOP efforts to make it harder to vote “Jim Crow 2.0.” The president then went to the Senate to beg his colleagues to support changes in the filibuster to let the John Lewis Voting Rights Act pass.
But just before Biden arrived on Thursday, Sinema took to the Senate floor to double down on her opposition to changing the filibuster, warning that Democrats would regret the change the next time they’re in the minority.
“Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come,” she said.
As he left his meeting with Senate Democrats that day, Biden sounded dejected.
“The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” he told reporters.
Manchin, for his part, said Wednesday that he hoped Democrats would keep debating the voting rights bills—not vote to end debate, then move on to the filibuster.
“It is such an important issue that all of us have grave concerns about, and it's worthy of the time we spend. I would like to see us stay on the bill. There's no use to try to bring this to finality by having a vote that’s going to fail tonight. Let's just stay on it,” he told CNN.
Sinema’s stance—and speech—earned her fury from the left and alienated key allies. The abortion rights group NARAL and EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice Democratic women, had been major Sinema supporters in the past. But both announced Tuesday that they would no longer back Sinema if she didn’t change her stance on a filibuster carve-out. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned he was open to supporting primary challenges to both of them.
Biden certainly hasn’t gotten any boost from this fight—his approval rating dropped to a new low in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average this week, at 42 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval.
Democrats contend the fight was worth having. Many argued that this was the last, best shot at passing legislation that could protect democracy from former President Donald Trump and his followers, who are actively working to undercut it at the state level and could well be back in power in Congress after this election.
But those arguments managed to move just one hesitant Democrat into support for filibuster reform—though it wasn’t the Arizona senator Democrats needed most. Sen. Mark Kelly, Sinema’s home-state colleague who’s facing a tough reelection fight this fall, announced he’d split with Sinema and vote to reform the filibuster on Wednesday morning.
“If campaign finance and voting rights reforms are blocked again this week, I will support the proposed changes to pass them with a majority vote,” Kelly said in a statement.
But that’s not enough to get the bill passed.
Biden will hold his first press conference of the new year this afternoon, and will undoubtedly face a barrage of questions on this bill. Democrats will force a vote they know they’ll lose this evening. And they’ll move on, hoping that this fight hasn’t done any damage to their rapidly fading prospects of holding onto their narrow congressional majorities in the midterms and passing other significant legislation this year.