CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As President Joe Biden on Tuesday pushed the U.S. Senate to change its rules in order to pass voting rights legislation, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Republican colleagues criticized possible revisions.
The president at the Atlanta University Center announced his support for dropping the Senate filibuster so lawmakers could pass legislation on election matters with a simple majority. Biden’s speech came after months of private conversations with legislators and Republican blocks of bills aimed at expanding voter access and reviewing discriminatory policies.
“I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is a right from which all our other rights flow,” Biden said. “I make it with an appeal to my Republican colleagues. To those Republicans who believe in the rule of law, restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights.”
While Democrats control the split Senate given Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, 60 votes are needed to advance most bills. Republicans during last year’s congressional session were successful in blocking voting rights legislation.
Biden called on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act as soon as possible. The push from Biden and Democrats stems from former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud and state legislatures approving measures restricting voting access.
The Freedom to Vote Act includes provisions enacting automatic voter registration, allowing same-day registration, providing mail-in voting for federal races, and establishing a 15-day early voting period in federal election cycles. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is sponsoring the measure; he pushed Democrats to insert language regarding a voter identification standard. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named after the late civil rights advocate and Georgia congressman — would restore federal oversight powers for reviewing local and state election laws.
The House of Representatives already passed voting legislation; none of West Virginia’s representatives backed the measures.
“The vice president and I have supported voting rights bills since day one of this administration, but each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way. Republicans oppose even debating the issue,” Biden said. “I’ve never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice that’s ready to speak for justice now.”
Republican criticisms of voting rights legislation include concerns about federal overreach into how states conduct their elections. Capito has additionally cited opposition by Secretary of State Mac Warner and 54 West Virginia county clerks.
Capito joined colleagues for a press conference and a round of speeches on the Senate floor. She noted Republicans did not change the filibuster when the party controlled the Senate during the Trump presidency.
“We could have, but we didn’t,” she said in the Senate chamber.
Capito and Manchin were among the signees of an April 2017 letter asking Senate leaders to preserve the filibuster and other chamber rules.
Capito said modifying the filibuster would allow the majority party to control the legislative agenda without needing to work with other legislators. The senator said the 60-vote threshold spurs better legislation, citing coronavirus relief measures and last year’s infrastructure law as examples.
“Bipartisanship is critical to making good and better policy, and if the Senate rules are changed, it would be a relic of the past,” she said.
“We can do this, but if we change the rules to where only 50 votes are needed to pass legislation, there will be zero incentive or motivation for the two sides to work together. And just as badly, legislative accomplishments can be done or undone and redone and done over and over with just one flip of a Senate seat.”
Biden said Republicans are not using the filibuster to build consensus but rather tear apart the legislative process.
“The filibuster has been weaponized and abused while the state legislatures’ assaults on voting rights is simple. All you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority,” he said regarding Georgia’s legislative body.
“State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities,” the president added. “If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued changes would muffle some states during legislative debates.
“If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in this chamber in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory,” McConnell said, referencing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
McConnell also noted Manchin’s longstanding opposition to proposed rule changes. Democrats are working to persuade Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to support revisions for voting legislation.
“Our colleague also pointed out that the 60-vote threshold keeps federal law durable and predictable,” the minority leader said of Manchin.
McConnell added: “This has been a key point for senators on both sides going back generations.”
Schumer, McConnell and Capito cited late Sen. Robert Byrd in their arguments. Schumer noted a Byrd comment regarding rule changes are necessary “to reflect changed circumstances,” while McConnell and Capito mentioned Byrd’s opposition to removing the filibuster.
Byrd served in the Senate for 51 years, including two periods as Senate majority leader and six years as the chamber’s minority leader. After his death in 2010, Manchin won a special election for the open seat.
Schumer set a goal for the Senate to vote on passing legislation or changing the rules by Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Legislators are reviewing multiple options, including a possible reduction of senators needed to debate legislation and allowing a “talking filibuster,” in which senators could delay action by talking for hours.
Manchin on Tuesday said the Senate should not pass rules that encourage the majority party to ignore the minority party. He added he would support rule changes given Democratic and Republican support.
“I’m looking at everything I can to make this place work,” he told reporters. “Voting is the bedrock of democracy, but to break the opportunity for the minority to participate completely, that’s just not who we are.”