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Sen. Patty Murray backs creating exemption to filibuster rule to pass Democrats’ sweeping voting reform package

UPDATED: Sat., March 27, 2021

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021.  (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Amid mounting frustration among congressional Democrats over a rule that requires a 60-vote majority to pass most Senate legislation, Sen. Patty Murray said Friday she is open to overturning the filibuster to pass a sweeping election reform package with only Democratic votes, signaling a shift that could pave the way for more major legislation.

“The For the People Act is essential to making sure our democracy stays a democracy,” Murray told The Spokesman-Review in a statement, “and I will consider every legislative option, including an exemption to the filibuster, to ensure it can be signed into law.”

Murray, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has earned a reputation as a careful politician not prone to hasty decisions. While the veteran Washington lawmaker has backed the bill, which would usher in the biggest U.S. elections overhaul in a generation, she had previously declined to say she would support the so-called “nuclear option” of eliminating the filibuster to overcome fierce Republican opposition to the legislation.

The “For the People Act,” which passed the Democratic-majority House in a party-line vote March 3, would expand automatic and same-day voter registration along with mail-in and early voting. It also would require states to establish independent redistricting committees to redraw congressional districts and impose new campaign finance regulations, among numerous other changes.

Democrats see the bill as an increasingly urgent tool to counteract a nationwide wave of GOP-backed legislation to restrict access to voting, something Republicans say is needed to prevent voter fraud despite a lack of evidence that widespread fraud has occurred.

The passage Thursday of new voting restrictions in Georgia, the state that decided control of the Senate, raised the stakes. Both parties claim the other is trying to cynically change voting systems to its own benefit, with Republicans raising alarm about voter fraud and Democrats decrying voter suppression.

GOP lawmakers also challenge the constitutionality of the Democrats’ bill in Congress. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said it “would federalize our election process and strip states of election authorities guaranteed to them by the Constitution.”

“This bill would mandate a one-size-fits-all process that removes that constitutional authority from states and hands it over to Washington bureaucrats,” Crapo said in a statement. “If passed, this bill would politicize the bipartisan Federal Elections Commission, restrict political speech and insert further potential for fraud into elections across the country immediately after an election cycle in which more than one-third of Americans already did not trust their vote counted.”

Several national polls have found most GOP voters believe the 2020 presidential election was rigged or stolen, a claim former President Donald Trump repeated for months despite Republican election officials, judges he appointed and his own attorney general saying there was no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud that could change the election’s outcome.

After passing a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package March 10 through a process that let them bypass the filibuster, Senate Democrats have confronted the reality that few of their legislative priorities stand a chance of garnering the support from Republicans needed to reach the 60-vote threshold.

On Friday, President Joe Biden urged senators to pass the For the People Act to counter the voting bill Georgia’s legislature passed a day earlier, which he compared to the racist “Jim Crow” voting laws Southern states used to suppress Black voters until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Progressive groups have also invoked the filibuster’s history as a tool to block civil rights legislation in pushing Democrats to eliminate the barrier to pass legislation, something a majority of senators can do by changing the Senate rules.

“We appreciate and are encouraged by Senator Murray’s leadership on direly-needed democracy reforms, including the For the People Act, and her recognition that the Jim Crow filibuster cannot and should not come in the way of Americans’ ability to participate in our democracy,” Hannah Simon, spokeswoman for the anti-filibuster progressive group Battle Born Collective, wrote in an email.

Eliminating the legislative filibuster would not be unprecedented. Democrats did away with the rule for presidential nominees in 2013 and Republicans did the same for judicial appointments in 2017, but the move would mark a decisive turning point for the upper chamber, which has long served as a slower-moving deliberative body than the House.

Murray’s move on Friday suggests the tide may be turning among Democratic leadership in favor of a seismic change at the Capitol.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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