WASHINGTON – A day after President Joe Biden called on Democrats to change Senate rules to pass sweeping election reform legislation, both of Washington’s senators threw their support behind the effort Wednesday, while an Idaho Republican warned the proposed changes would “destroy” the Senate as it exists today.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, said Wednesday they support a rule change that would let Democrats skirt the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Biden and his allies argue Congress must pass federal legislation to counter new laws in GOP-controlled states that restrict voting and give partisan actors more control over how elections are run.
“I believe that voting rights and the ability to make sure our democracy is preserved, by having everyone have a right to vote and not be blocked from that, is critical, important legislation,” Murray said in an interview. “I support it strongly enough that I believe there should at least be a carveout for passing the federal voting-rights protections.”
“Protecting our country from voter suppression is critically important to our democracy,” Cantwell said in a statement, adding that she supports changing Senate rules to allow a simple majority of 51 senators to vote on election-related bills, without saying whether she would back broader changes to the filibuster.
Cantwell had said in May 2021 she supported a return to the “talking filibuster,” which would force senators in the minority to keep talking to block a vote, as made famous by the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Democrats have just enough votes in the Senate – with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker – to change the rules, but several of them have expressed reservations about scrapping a rule proponents credit with protecting the minority party’s interests and encouraging bipartisan compromise. Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he plans to bring the rule change up for a vote this week.
Murray, a member of Democratic leadership, declined to say how she planned to get her entire caucus on board, saying only that “there’s a number of discussions about what we can do to change the rules.” In a blog post published Wednesday, she made a case for changing Senate rules both to pass election-reform bills and to make it harder for the minority party to block debate.
“I’m someone who believes strongly in the right of the minority party to have a voice,” Murray wrote, but she concluded the filibuster is “pushing Democrats and Republicans further into their corners rather than towards collaboration.”
Tré Easton, deputy director of the anti-filibuster advocacy group Battle Born Collective and a former Murray aide, said the Washington senator’s support for filibuster reform has helped bring the issue into the Democratic mainstream over the past year.
“Her voice is huge in all these conversations around national policy,” Easton said. “Especially because she has been there for 30 years and is very much an institutionalist, her stepping forward and recognizing the urgency behind this is huge.”
When Biden spoke in Atlanta on Tuesday, he likened the GOP-led voting bills that passed in 19 states last year to racist “Jim Crow” laws designed to keep Black southerners from voting. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said Wednesday that Biden’s speech was “outrageous” and warned that the Democrats’ proposals would violate states’ rights to run their own elections.
“He accused, essentially, all Republicans – and a number of Democrats who don’t support him on the filibuster – of being racist,” Crapo said. “For someone who came into office saying he wanted to work with all people and stop divisiveness, I thought his speech was one of the most divisive speeches I’ve heard.”
In 2021, GOP-controlled legislatures in 19 states passed laws that limit how and when people can vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of those laws roll back last-minute changes made ahead of the 2020 election to expand mail-in voting amid the pandemic, while others give partisan officials more control over how elections are run.
Congressional Democrats have put forward two bills to counter those state-level changes. One would restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, since struck down by the Supreme Court, that required states with a history of racist voter suppression to get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws. The second, broader bill would make Election Day a national holiday, establish rules to reduce partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and require states to allow same-day voter registration and let anyone vote by mail, among other provisions.
While all 50 Senate Democrats support their party’s voting legislation, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – two frequent sources of frustration among progressives – have both said they oppose doing away with the filibuster. But other moderate Democrats have also stopped short of calling for its elimination.
“I’ve always believed the legislative filibuster can play an important role in bringing folks together and creating durable legislation,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement. “However, I’ve also said I didn’t come to Washington to get nothing done, and I’m deeply concerned by the latest efforts to erode our election security and make it more difficult for all eligible Montanans to vote.”
That ambivalence has led many Democrats to favor a narrow exemption for voting-related legislation rather than scrapping the filibuster altogether, but Easton said that distinction isn’t likely to matter to Republicans.
“Any kind of procedural workaround, it’s going to be perceived as an act of war by the Republicans, whatever Democrats move to do,” Easton said. “Whatever they decide on the procedure, that’s going to be the opening gambit in what’s probably going to be a prolonged war around Senate rules.”
Other Democrats who remain noncommittal include Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who led a bipartisan group of senators in 2017 – when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and White House – calling for the filibuster to be preserved. Cantwell was among the 61 senators who signed that letter, while Murray was not.
Republicans have accused Democrats of hypocrisy, pointing out that Schumer, the Democratic leader, railed against changes to the filibuster in a 2005 speech.
“The ideologues in the Senate want to turn what the Founding Fathers called the ‘cooling saucer of democracy’ into the rubber stamp of dictatorship. We will not let them,” Schumer said in 2005. “It’ll be a doomsday for democracy if we do.”
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said in a statement that the Democrats’ change of heart on the filibuster “is a self-control issue – just because you have the power to do something doesn’t mean you ought to.”
“The same people who are trying to blow up the filibuster gave all sorts of flowery speeches just a few years ago about what a wonderful tool the filibuster is and how it should never go away,” Risch said. “There is no question that the filibuster is the firewall preserving the deliberative nature of the Senate that has helped keep our country unified and prosperous.”
While it was established by a rule change in 1806, the filibuster didn’t gain prominence until the 1840s, when southern senators exploited the loophole to block anti-slavery legislation. It has since been revised numerous times, most recently when Democrats did away with the filibuster for most presidential nominations in 2013 and Republicans did the same for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.
While Republicans are universally opposed to the Democrats’ voting bills, several GOP lawmakers have expressed interest in passing a narrower bill to reform an 1887 law whose ambiguity gave former President Donald Trump and his allies a potential backdoor to claiming the presidency despite losing the Electoral College in 2020.
Crapo said he is open to supporting such a bill because it would deal with Congress’s role in counting electoral votes, emphasizing that he would oppose any legislation to standardize elections nationwide. Because the Constitution gives state governments the authority to run their own elections, Crapo said, federal lawmakers should not dictate how elections are run or make judgments about the validity of each state’s results.
Asked whether that same standard should apply to a sitting president, Crapo said Biden should not comment on whether states are properly enforcing their election laws.
“I don’t believe that the president should be making the kinds of, I think, false and wholly inappropriate accusations that he is now making,” Crapo said of Biden.
As president and since leaving office, Trump has claimed repeatedly that election officials in several states allowed massive, coordinated voter fraud that tipped the outcome of the 2020 election in Biden’s favor. Dozens of judges – including some appointed by Trump himself – found those claims to be unfounded, as have numerous audits.
Speaking in Atlanta on Tuesday, Biden cast the choice Democratic senators face in stark terms.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history,” the president said. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?”
While Biden has sought to point blame at Republicans, he runs the risk of directing the ire of Democratic voters toward moderate Senate Democrats who are hesitant to chip away at the filibuster further, including some who are facing tough re-election races this year, including Tester and Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona. A vote on the rule change is expected in the coming days.
Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterized a quote from Sen. Mike Crapo about the appropriateness of a sitting president making judgments about how states run elections. He was referring to President Biden’s comments on state voting laws.