Joe Biden suffered a significant setback on Tuesday as one of his top priorities, a set of reforms to protect voting rights and shore up American democracy, was defeated in Congress.
With Vice-president Kamala Harris presiding, a Senate procedural vote on whether to start debate on sweeping election legislation ended as expected in a 50-50 stalemate along party lines. Sixty votes had been required to overcome Republicans’ use of a procedural tool known as the filibuster, in effect killing the bill.
“Every single Senate Republican just voted against starting debate – starting debate! – on legislation to protect Americans’ voting rights,” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, said angrily.
“Once again, the Senate Republican minority has launched a partisan blockade of a pressing issue here in the United States Senate. An issue no less fundamental than the right to vote.”
The near 900-page the For the People Act had represented a significant overhaul of voting and election law that the White House has described as a “cause” for Biden.
It was seen as a crucial counterweight to hundreds of voting bills introduced by Republican-controlled states, many of which include measures that would make it harder for Black people, young people and poor people to vote. Fourteen states had enacted 22 of these laws by mid-May, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Former president Barack Obama warned supporters on a call this week: “We can’t wait until the next election because if we have the same kinds of shenanigans that brought about [the insurrection on] 6 January, if we have that for a couple more election cycles, we’re going to have real problems in terms of our democracy long-term.”
Biden has also spoken passionately about the need to defend democracy but despite his penchant for bipartisanship he has been unable to move the needle.
Progressives have accused him of failing to use his bully pulpit to champion the sweeping legislation. Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the grassroots movement Indivisible, tweeted: “OK I have reached my WTF moment with Biden on this. Is saving democracy a priority for this administration or not?”
Levin, a former congressional aide, drew a contrast with Barack Obama, who organised a debate with Republicans about his signature healthcare law, and Bill Clinton, who gave 18 speeches to promote a North American free trade agreement.
Because of one man’s lie, Republicans are now doing the dastardly act of taking away voting from millions of Americans
He added: “Democracy is under threat. Fascism is rising. Time is running out. It’s time for the president to get off the sidelines and into the game, or we’re all going to lose.”
The White House defended Biden’s efforts. Jen Psaki, the press secretary, told reporters that “it will be a fight of his presidency long past today” and “he will continue to use the bully pulpit but also every lever in government to continue to advocate for moving forward”.
Democrats’ goals include expanding early voting in elections for president and Congress, making it easier to vote by mail – used by record numbers during the coronavirus pandemic – and improving the transparency of certain campaign contributions. They are also aiming to remove party bias from the once-a-decade drawing of congressional districts.
Democrats also accuse Republicans of seeking to reduce polling hours and locations and drop boxes, and tightening voter ID laws, as a direct response to Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen by voter fraud.
Harris, who is leading the White House’s voting rights push, told reporters after the Senate vote: “It is clear, certainly for the American people, that when we’re talking about the right to vote, it is not a Republican concern or a Democratic concern, it is an American concern.
“This is about the American people’s right to vote unfettered. It is about their access to the right to vote in a meaningful way because nobody is debating, I don’t believe, whether all Americans have the right to vote. The issue here is, is there actual access to the voting process or is that being impeded?”
She reiterated her and Biden’s support for the For the People Act and the less far-reaching John Lewis Voting Rights Act, adding: “The fight is not over.”
In remarks on the Senate floor earlier on Tuesday, Schumer likened Trump to “a petulant child”. He said: “Because of one man’s lie, Republicans are now doing the dastardly act of taking away voting from millions of Americans … making it much harder for them to vote, and many, many, many will not.
“From Georgia to Montana, from Florida to Iowa, Republican state legislatures are conducting the most coordinated voter suppression effort in 80 years.”
These state houses are making it easier to own a gun than to vote, Schumer said.
“Republican legislatures are making it harder to vote early, harder to vote by mail, harder to vote after work. They’re making it a crime to give food or water to voters waiting in long lines. They’re trying to make it harder for Black churchgoers to vote on Sunday.
“And they’re actually making it easier for unelected judges and partisan election boards to overturn the results of an election, opening the door for some demagogue, a Trumpian-type demagogue, maybe he himself, to try and subvert our elections in the very same way that Trump tried to do in 2020.”
Republicans argued that the For the People Act would infringe on states’ rights and that state measures are needed to stop fraud, even though there is no evidence of widespread problems. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, dismissed the bill as a “partisan power grab” in his own speech on the Senate floor.
Although the outcome of Tuesday’s vote had been a foregone conclusion, Democrats were relieved that they could present a united front when Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, agreed to vote for the procedural motion after weeks of suspense.
The outcome intensifies pressure for Democrats to abolish the filibuster so legislation can be debated and passed by a simple 51-vote majority – with Harris holding the tie-breaking vote. But Manchin and some colleagues have deep reservations about doing so.
Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic senator from Arizona, wrote in the Washington Post: “The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings.”
She added that she welcomed a full debate, “so senators and our constituents can hear and fully consider the concerns and consequences”.
Biden held talks with Manchin and Sinema at the White House on Monday, aware the congressional stalemate threatens to stall his agenda. Manchin told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday: “We had a very good conversation, very respectful … We’ve just got to keep working.”
Advocacy groups and activists expressed disgust with Republicans for obstructing the reforms. Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Just Democracy, said: “Senate Republicans’ filibuster circus today was shameful, and a direct attack on the millions of Black and Brown Americans who this broken body denied equal voting rights.
She added: “It is equally shameful that a handful of Senate Democrats turned their backs on the very people who elected them, and permitted Republicans to use the Jim Crow filibuster to inhibit progress on equal voting rights, instead of eliminating this procedure.”