Democrats are accusing moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) of racism after the duo rejected an effort by their party to abolish the filibuster in order to pass election legislation over the objections of all 50 GOP senators.
Just before Congress returned from its winter recess, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made clear in a Jan. 3 tweet that federal election legislation would be the party’s primary concern upon their return.
“We can and must take strong action to stop this anti-democratic march,” Schumer wrote, referencing strengthened state election laws that many Democrats have said constitute a “new Jim Crow.”
However, despite constant efforts by the party to pass election legislation during the 117th Congress, all their efforts have hit a roadblock due to nearly-unanimous GOP opposition.
Under the rules governing the Senate filibuster, legislation can be passed by a simple majority only after two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, have given their consent to end debate; If this threshold is not met, then the bill cannot move to a floor vote, effectively killing its prospects.
Democrats have put forward several proposed changes to federal election laws, but these have all been killed by GOP filibuster, and the GOP has on several occasions accused the majority party of using the legislation as a means to unfairly benefit Democrats over Republicans.
After a week of what Sinema described as “harried discussions” over removing the filibuster, she and her sometimes-ally Joe Manchin restated their long-held opposition to weakening the filibuster.
While this opposition comes as no surprise for longtime observers of the pair, some Democrats were quick to accuse the duo of racism after their announcements.
“They don’t care about minorities. They don’t care about Blacks. They don’t care about people in their own districts who they’re going to deny their voting rights,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) during an MSNBC appearance.
Vice President Kamala Harris also railed against the two moderates.
“I’m not going to absolve—nor should any of us absolve—any member of the United States Senate from taking on the responsibility to follow through on the oath that they all took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Harris told reporters in a statement equating support of Democrats’ partisan voting bills to support of the Constitution.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggested that Manchin “should have the courage of West Virginia that seceded from Virginia [during the Civil War] because they did not want to support slavery” and should join his party in destroying the filibuster, which Jackson Lee described as a “racist tool.”
Even though Republicans’ persistent use of the filibuster to halt election bills has caused the system to become controversial among some progressive elements in the Democratic Party recently, the Senate tool has not always been so controversial among Democrats.
Under the Republican majority in the 115th and 116th Congresses, Democrats in the upper chamber used the filibuster a record number of times. Democrats used the filibuster 314 times during President Donald Trump’s four-year term, far exceeding the GOP’s use of the filibuster 175 times during the whole of President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure.
Now in the majority, Democrats’ have flipped on this attitude altogether, and many went full speed ahead on an effort to significantly weaken it or abolish it altogether.
Technically they could do so: Under the so-called “nuclear option,” the majority party can tweak or radically reshape Senate rules through a simple majority vote. But this is a course that legislators from both parties have long been loathe to take, as the filibuster and other Senate rules have become integral to the Senate’s character and peculiar role in U.S. politics.
Historically the rule has served as a filter for the excess of the House and as a safeguard for the minority party.
In the American Founders’ vision for the Senate, its mission was to be a far more exclusive and far more deliberative body than the often-rowdy House of Representatives. Under the assumption that the House would sometimes get carried away, the Senate developed into a body that would filter out the lower chamber’s worst excesses.
Moreover, under filibuster guidelines, both parties maintain substantial influence in the upper chamber even when in the minority.
These considerations have made generations of Democrats and Republicans hesitant to make any changes to Senate rules, and Sinema and Manchin, whose opposition to a filibuster carve out has been well-documented and often repeated, have made clear that they are opposed to their party’s effort to neuter the filibuster.
Sinema was the first to restate her opposition to any weakening of the filibuster in a Jan. 13 statement.
“There’s no need for me to restate my longstanding support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation. There’s no need for me to restate its role in protecting our country from wild reversals of federal policy,” Sinema said.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sinema emphasized her support of her party’s election bills but unilaterally refused to change the filibuster in order to pass the legislation.
“While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division affecting our country,” Sinema told her colleagues in a quavering voice.
Following this announcement, Manchin released a statement reaffirming his own opposition to a filibuster carve out.
Like Sinema, Manchin has made clear that he supports limited election legislation, and the West Virginia maverick has even spearheaded one election bill designed to win GOP support.
But in an echo of Sinema’s sentiments Manchin argued, “Allowing one party to exert complete control in the Senate with only a simple majority will only pour fuel onto the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart. Especially,” he added, “when one party controls both Congress and the White House.”
“As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin said.
In the past, both lawmakers have rejected the notion that their support of the filibuster makes them racist, and this newest round of ad hominem attacks is nothing new for the duo, as both have stood resolutely against filibuster changes since the beginning of the 117th Congress.
Despite their rejection of the plan, Leader Schumer made the decision to move ahead with a debate and vote on a new batch of election bills.
On Tuesday, the Senate will open debate on the “Freedom to Vote Act,” and a vote is scheduled for Wednesday.