Senate fails to change filibuster rules after GOP blocks voting rights bill

By Maureen Chowdhury, Melissa Macaya, Melissa Mahtani and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 12:27 AM ET, Thu January 20, 2022
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11:58 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Senate Democrats suffered a major defeat today on voting rights. Here are key things to know.

From CNN's Clare Foran, Ali Zaslav and Ted Barrett,

Senate Democrats suffered a major defeat this evening in their efforts to pass voting rights legislation — a key issue for the party, which is under pressure to take action ahead of the midterm elections just months away.

Here are key things to know about what unfolded in the Senate today:

  • Today's two votes: An attempt by Democrats to change filibuster rules in order to pass a voting bill failed amid opposition from moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The vote was 52-48, with the two moderates joining all GOP senators. After the vote failed, there was a loud round of applause from Republicans. Earlier in the day, the Senate failed to break a GOP filibuster on voting legislation that combines key provisions of two bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. At least 10 Republicans would have needed to vote with Democrats to clear the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster, which was not expected to happen amid widespread Republican opposition to the voting legislation.
  • What the filibuster changes would have done: The proposed rules change — to allow for a "talking filibuster" on the legislation — would have forced lawmakers who want to filibuster the bill to come to the Senate floor and speak in opposition. Once those speeches come to an end, the Senate would be able to hold a simple majority vote for final passage. The move would effectively eliminate the 60-vote threshold set by the filibuster.
  • Manchin and Sinema's position: Sinema released a statement Wednesday evening explaining why she opposed the change. The Arizona Democrat said that she maintained her longstanding opposition to "actions that would deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty and further eroding confidence in our government." Manchin had said he would not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. In a speech before the votes Wednesday evening, Manchin warned against partisan division and argued that lawmakers must seek compromise even if it is challenging to do so.
  • What Republicans are saying: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday defended the Senate's rule and said that Republicans would continue their track record of upholding the legislative filibuster, which he called the "essence of the Senate," the next time they're in the majority. "It's pretty safe to say this is the biggest day in the history of the Senate," McConnell said. The Kentucky Republican, without naming them, congratulated Manchin and Sinema for their "courage" and bearing in mind "that in the very near future the shoe might be on the other foot."

Read more about today's votes here.

12:13 a.m. ET, January 20, 2022

Voting rights fight now shifts back to statehouses after Senate Democrats fail to advance legislation

From CNN's Eric Bradner

Just weeks from the first primaries of the 2022 midterm elections, the fight over voting rights is unfolding again at the state level — with Republicans in several swing states proposing new measures that would make it harder to vote.

Seizing on former President Trump's lies about widespread voter fraud, Republicans in statehouses across the country last year enacted a series of new laws limiting access to mail-in voting, imposing new identification requirements, narrowing early voting options and more. More legislation that would tack on additional restrictions is already under consideration in some states this year.

Democrats had long pinned their hopes of stopping that avalanche of restrictive voting laws on Capitol Hill, where the party hoped to use its House and Senate majorities to approve national voting rights legislation that would override those state laws. But Senate Democrats' failure on Wednesday to change Senate rules to advance two major voting rights measures has all but erased Democrats' hopes of federal intervention in time for this year's elections.

Progressive and pro-voting rights groups vowed to continue fighting after the Senate's vote failed Wednesday night.

"We are at a moment of reckoning in America. The Senate failed our democracy tonight," said Eric Holder, the US attorney general during former President Barack Obama's administration.

"Anything short of protecting the right to vote is a death sentence for democracy. This fight is far from over," said Derrick Johnson, the NAACP president.

Read the full story below:

11:48 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Here's what the voting bills that failed in the Senate would have done

From CNN's Fredreka Schouten

The Senate failed to break a GOP filibuster on voting legislation that combines key provisions of two bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The John Lewis bill, named for the late Georgia congressman, focuses on restoring the power of the federal government to oversee state voting procedures to prevent discrimination against minority voters. A pair of Supreme Court rulings have eroded the key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and this proposal would update the landmark law.

The Freedom to Vote Act is a more sweeping measure that would affect how Americans register to vote and cast their ballots.

In addition to making Election Day a federal holiday, it would:

  • Mandate that states that require voter identification accept a broader range of ID. It also allows a voter to submit a sworn statement from another adult attesting to the voter's identity.
  • Allow voters to use ballot drop boxes, a method popularized in 2020 to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. About 41% of people who voted absentee in the 2020 election used drop boxes, according to the Pew Research Center. Lawmakers in several states, including Georgia, Florida and Iowa, have restricted their use. A new Georgia law, for instance, limits the number and location of drop boxes. In populous Fulton County, the number of drop boxes available to voters went from 38 in 2020 to eight in municipal elections last year. And a top Republican in the state has proposed banning their use altogether.
  • Establish nationwide vote-by-mail rules. Voters would not need an excuse — such as illness or travel — to vote by mail. Once voters opt to receive ballots by mail, they would remain on a permanent vote-by-mail list, unless they asked to be removed or were no longer eligible to vote in the state. This provision would counter new laws in states such as Florida, which now requires voters to request mail ballots every general election cycle or roughly every two years.
  • Allow people to register to vote and cast ballots at the same time. Twenty states and Washington, DC, already do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States also would have to make it easier to register to vote online.
  • Permit voter registration forms to also serve as absentee ballot applications, circumventing restrictions on mailing out absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't specifically request them. Under a law enacted last year in Texas, election officials face jail time and up to $10,000 fines for soliciting the "submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application."
  • Require states to count provisional ballots as long as they are cast in the correct counties. Under Georgia's voting law enacted in 2021, for instance, voters who show up at the wrong polling places before 5 p.m. on Election Day must travel to the correct locations to cast their ballots. During the 2020 election, 66% of provisional ballots accepted in Fulton County had come from voters casting ballots at the wrong precincts.
  • Allow third-party groups to give water and food to voters waiting in line to cast ballots — as long as they aren't engaging in electioneering activities or otherwise trying to sway votes.
  • Restore federal voting rights to felons once they are released from prison. State laws vary widely on when people convicted of felonies can vote.

Read more about the bills here.

11:41 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Rep. Clyburn: "Although the Senate's inaction is disappointing, this is not the end"

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, tweeted that the Senate's failure to pass voting rights legislation is "disappointing" but that efforts are not over.

"Although the Senate’s inaction is disappointing, this is not the end," he said.

See the tweet below:

11:29 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

NAACP president: "Anything short of protecting the right to vote is a death sentence for democracy"

From CNN's Eva McKend

NAACP President Derick Johnson blasted the Senate’s failure to advance voting rights as a “shameful outcome.”

Though Johnson notes past civil rights efforts like the original 1965 Voting Rights Act took several attempts before it ultimately passed into law.

“Anything short of protecting the right to vote is a death sentence for democracy. This fight is far from over,” he says in a statement.

11:37 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Martin Luther King Jr.'s son: Manchin and Sinema "have let down the United States of America"

Martin Luther King III, speaks during a press conference with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at Union Station in Washington, DC on Monday.
Martin Luther King III, speaks during a press conference with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at Union Station in Washington, DC on Monday. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

In a statement tonight, Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., slammed moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, saying "they have let down the United States of America. They were given countless opportunities to protect our most sacred franchise, but in the end, they sided with a Jim Crow relic over the voting rights of Black and Brown communities.”

"They ignored the call of millions of Americans, West Virginians, and Arizonans who know that restoring the Voting Rights Act is an imperative for the health of our democracy. Like I said from the Frederick Douglass Bridge on the holiday to honor my father: no bridge will be strong enough to hold the weight of this failure," he said in the statement.

He continued: "Despite this setback, we are going to keep fighting for voting rights legislation. This fight marks a new chapter in the King legacy and we will not accept failure. We have set extraordinary groundwork for change and the country will not let this fight end. Ending the filibuster is part of the national conversation in a way it’s never been before — people now know the filibuster is not etched in the Constitution, but rather a tool of suppression, and the voting rights secured by my father are under attack.”

11:22 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Schumer on voting rights: "We will not quit"

(Senate TV)
(Senate TV)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed that Democrats would continue their fight against voter suppression despite suffering a major defeat today in their efforts pass voting rights legislation today.

"We will not quit," Schumer said on the Senate floor.

"While tonight's vote was disappointing, it will not deter Senate Democrats from continuing our fight against voter suppression, dark money and partisan gerrymandering. With no support from Senate Republicans, many of whom deny the very existence of voter suppression. We faced an uphill battle. But because of this fight and the fact that each senator had to show where they stand, we are closer to achieving our goal of passing vital voter protection legislation. We take inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He kept fighting for voting rights through every obstacle and we will do the same. We will not quit," Schumer said.

He continued: "Now that every senator has gone on record, the American people have seen who's on the side of protecting voting rights and it will only strengthen our resolve as we work to ensure our democracy does not backslide. This vote is another step forward in the long march for universal voting rights. The Democratic caucus pledges to keep working until voting rights are protected for every American."

11:13 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Sanders says Manchin and Sinema have "undermined" Biden and can expect 2024 primaries

From CNN's Ted Barrett and Manu Raju

Sen. Bernie Sanders called out his fellow Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, over their opposition to changing filibuster rules in order to pass voting rights legislation.

“These are people who I think have undermined the President of the United States" and they “can expect to find primary challenges” in 2024, Sanders said.

“They have forced us to have five months of discussions that have gone absolutely nowhere,” he said.

11:07 p.m. ET, January 19, 2022

Harris on failed Senate vote on filibuster and voting rights: "The American people will not forget"

From CNN Brian Rokus

Vice President Kamala Harris released a statement on tonight’s Senate vote, saying about the freedom to vote: “today, Senators voted to preserve an arcane Senate procedure rather than secure that fundamental freedom. The American people will not forget this moment. Neither will history.” 

She said the administration will continue to "fight to pass federal legislation to secure the right to vote."

"We will not stop fighting against the anti-voter legislation that Republican legislatures continue to push at the state level—and to champion and support state and local elected officials who work to enact pro-voter legislation. We will work to ensure Americans everywhere can register to vote, cast their vote, and have their vote counted in a free and fair election," she said in the statement.