House passes voting rights package, setting up Senate filibuster showdown

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks to reporters during her weekly press conference at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

WASHINGTON (The Hill) – The House passed voting rights legislation on Thursday in a way that is intended to set up a battle in the Senate over that issue as well as the filibuster.

The measure passed in a 220-203 party-line vote.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to put the measure to a vote in the coming days before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in a bid to highlight state laws approved by GOP-dominated state governments that Democrats say will make it more difficult for their supporters — including minority voters — to vote.

“Nothing less is at stake than our democracy,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The manner in which the legislation was approved allows Schumer to bring it straight to the floor. But Democrats would need 60 votes — including 10 GOP votes — to get it to President Biden‘s desk given the filibuster. 

Two Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — oppose making changes to the filibuster that would allow the voting rights measure to sidestep the procedural hurdle and be approved on a majority vote. 

House Democrats already passed voting rights legislation last year, only to be stymied by a GOP filibuster in the evenly divided 50-50 Senate.

The sweeping legislation would establish federal standards for voting access, including allowing for same-day voter registration; establishing Election Day as a legal public holiday; requiring states to allow a minimum number of days for early voting; and allowing people to vote absentee by mail for any reason.

The package also includes provisions of a bill named after the late civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), that would restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required states with histories of voting rights violations to obtain clearance from the Justice Department before implementing new election laws. That provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. 

Republicans argued that Democrats’ fears of voter suppression due to the new state-level GOP election laws were overblown.

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, noted that some GOP-led states currently allow more days of early in-person voting than some Democratic-led states, comparing New York and Georgia.

“This is not about voting rights. This is about power and control,” Davis said.

Passage of the voting rights legislation comes a week after the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol by a mob of former President Trump‘s supporters who interrupted lawmakers’ certification of the presidential election results. 

Biden will meet with Senate Democrats later Thursday afternoon, two days after he traveled to Georgia to publicly urge his party to pass voting rights legislation.

During his Tuesday speech, Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, endorsed reforming the chamber’s rules  “whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights.”

But expectations are low among Democratic senators that they’ll emerge from the meeting united on a plan to enact the legislation Biden wants.

Democrats are using a bicameral bill related to allowing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to lease its properties to other entities as the legislative vehicle for the voting rights package. 

That process will give Senate Democrats a procedural shortcut so that they can bypass the 60 votes typically needed to formally start debate on legislation. But the bill will still have to clear a 60-vote hurdle to actually pass. 

“Though I did not expect this outcome when I first introduced the NASA Enhanced Use Leasing Extension Act, if my legislation will help overcome the filibuster, the Senate can finally have the long-overdue debate on voting rights this country deserves,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), the sponsor of the original NASA bill.

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