CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s U.S. senators on Thursday reiterated their opposition to changing the Senate filibuster as the future of voting rights legislation remains unclear.
President Joe Biden went to the U.S. Capitol to encourage Senate Democrats to support changes. Such revisions would allow the split Senate to pass election measures with a simple majority.
Biden left the meeting uncertain about the bills’ future.
“The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden told reporters.
“Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time. We missed this time.”
Senate Democrats have discussed passing voting rights legislation with 51 votes rather than the 60 votes necessary for advancing most measures. Democrats control the Senate given Vice President Kamala Harris delivering a tie-breaking vote, but Republicans can easily block legislation in the chamber.
Republican senators succeeded in rejecting voting rights measures during last year’s congressional session.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., joined Republican colleagues on Tuesday for a press conference and floor speeches against revisions. As for Democrats, they have struggled to convince Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to consider altering the rules.
Current Senate rules require 60 legislators to vote for ending debate before the chamber can move to a final vote. Senators agreed in 2013 and 2017 to confirm nominations with a simple majority; Manchin opposed both revisions, while Capito supported the 2017 change.
Manchin, Capito and 60 other senators sent a letter to Senate leaders in April 2017 urging legislative rules remain intact.
“What it really does is it slows things down in a good way,” Capito told reporters Thursday about the filibuster.
“It makes sure that the party that’s in the minority has a strong voice and is able to weigh in on issues of the day. It also gives, I think, opportunities for smaller states to have a bigger voice because your voices become all that more important in a filibuster arena.”
Manchin has remained steadfast against changing the filibuster throughout his tenure in office; his argument centers on fostering bipartisanship over permitting the majority caucus to ignore the minority party.
“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 when one party controls both Congress and the White House,” Manchin said in a statement. “As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat like Manchin, preceded his comments with a floor speech opposing a change. Manchin and Sinema met Thursday evening with Biden; the White House described the meeting as a “candid and respectful exchange of views about voting rights.”
West Virginia’s senators have cited comments from late Sen. Robert Byrd in their defenses of the filibuster. Manchin noted Thursday a May 2010 Senate testimony in which Byrd described the filibuster as a tool “against the excesses of the executive branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority.”
“I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country by putting politics and party aside,” Manchin said. “It is time we do the hard work to forge the difficult compromises that can stand the test of time and deliver on the promise of a brighter tomorrow for all Americans.”
Capito warned allowing the Senate to pass bills with a simple majority would jeopardize stability as one party can undo a previous Congress’ work with 51 votes.
“All kinds of different swings to our policies, and that’s not good for our country,” she said. “We need to stay, I think, in a more predictable fashion that the filibuster affords for us.”
Democrats are pushing voting rights legislation in response to state legislatures passing restrictive laws as well as former President Donald Trump’s false claims regarding the 2020 presidential election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 state legislative bodies approved bills restricting voter access during 2021.
Manchin is a sponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act; it would allow same-day and automatic voter registration, provide mail-in voting opportunities during federal elections, and establish a 15-day early voting period. Manchin backed the proposal after Democrats inserted language on voter identification.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named after the late civil rights advocate and Georgia congressman — would restore the federal government’s ability to review local and state election laws. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down this authority, in which justices said the formula determining oversight was outdated.
Republicans contend the legislation would encroach on states’ ability to manage elections.
Capito has additionally cited opposition from Secretary of State Mac Warner and 54 county clerks during her arguments against the measures. Warner was among the West Virginia officials who challenged the 2020 presidential election results. He participated in a “Stop the Steal” rally outside of the state Capitol in December 2020.
“Let’s let the legislatures set the way that they want to see votes, and I think as you see more and more people voting, you’ll see that the accommodations are being made in states to make sure that happens,” Capito said.
When asked about the Republican challenges to the 2020 presidential election, Capito noted lawsuits following the election showed there is no evidence of election fraud. She also mentioned Democrats who challenged the 2016 presidential election results because Trump lost the popular vote.
“I think the biggest thing that states can do — and what they are doing — is clarifying where the gray areas are,” she said. “I think in the end, we have good processes. We had safer elections than we’ve ever had because of the dollars that we’ve invested from the federal government to the state secretaries of state to make sure the voting processes that they have are secure.”
The Kanawha County Democratic Executive Committee sent Manchin a letter encouraging him to support voting rights legislation in addition to filibuster changes related to passing the measures.
“Unfortunately, we have seen time and again the filibuster is not being used for its well-intended purposes. Simply put, you can’t play ball if the other team won’t play,” Chair Elaine Harris wrote in the letter dated Wednesday. “When the filibuster is being used to obstruct and not perfect legislation, it is time to either reform the rule, or establish carve outs for important pieces of legislation like voting rights. ”
The House of Representatives on Thursday amended a measure to include both voting rights bills. The chamber voted 220-203; West Virginia Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller joined Republican colleagues in opposition.
“Elections in West Virginia are proven, secure and accessible, with trusted results. We must reject this brazen attempt to destroy the integrity of American elections,” McKinley said in a statement.
Miller called the action an attempt to “federalize our elections.”
“Americans need solutions to the problems facing their day-to-day lives, not more ineffective liberal policies,” she tweeted.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wanted the Senate to pass legislation or vote on changing rules by Monday, which is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Schumer announced Thursday the Senate will reconvene next week to consider the House action, delaying a scheduled recess until the week of Jan. 24.