WASHINGTON -- Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital to protecting ballot access collapsed Wednesday when two senators refused to join their own party in changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster after a lengthy debate.
Despite a day of debate and speeches that often carried echoes of an earlier era when the Senate filibuster was deployed by opponents of civil rights legislation, Democrats could not persuade holdout senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to change the Senate procedures on this one bill and allow a simple majority to advance it.
"This is a moral moment," said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to break a tie in the 50-50 Senate if needed, but she left before the final roll call. The rules change was rejected in a 52-48 vote, with Manchin and Sinema joining the Republicans in opposition.
The nighttime voting brought an end, for now, to legislation that has been a top Democratic priority since the party took control of Congress and the White House.
"I am profoundly disappointed," President Joe Biden said in a statement after the vote.
Sinema did not speak on the floor Wednesday, but she made her position clear in a speech last week, delivered just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill to lobby Democrats at a private Senate lunch. She sat at her desk on the Senate floor for much of Wednesday's debate, listening to speakers of both parties.
Manchin, meanwhile, insisted that the Democratic proposal amounted to an attempt to "break the rules to change the rules."
Manchin added that Democrats could opt to keep the voting rights legislation on the Senate floor for days or weeks longer, working to invite amendments and build GOP support that has been elusive over months of back-channel negotiations.
"We've wasted a year behind the scenes," he said. "Talking through each other, around each other, but not to each other. Let's have the debate."
Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation, but Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill over the Republican filibuster. It failed 49-51 on a largely party-line vote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a "talking filibuster" on this one bill. It would have required senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
But that, too, failed because Manchin and Sinema said they were unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who led his party in doing away with the filibuster's 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees during Donald Trump's presidency, warned against changing the rules again.
In 2006, McConnell praised a bill to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was enacted to combat the racist voting laws of the Jim Crow era.
"One of my favorite sayings that many of us use from time to time is, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" McConnell said on the Senate floor in July 2006 before the Senate passed the bill on a 98-0 vote.
On Wednesday, McConnell derided the "fake hysteria" from Democrats over the states' new voting laws and called the pending bill a federal takeover of election systems. He said doing away with filibuster rules would "break the Senate."
"The case that most of our Democratic colleagues are making this week boils down to a claim that everything is somehow broken. The Senate is broken because they can't get everything they want. Our democracy is broken because Democrats sometimes lose elections," McConnell said on the Senate floor, "The fear is false, the rage is misplaced, and today, factional fevers will not carry the day."
Manchin drew a roomful of senators for his speech defending the filibuster. He said changing to a majority-rule Senate would only "add fuel to the fire" and the "dysfunction that is tearing this nation apart."
Manchin did open the door to a more tailored package of voting law changes, including to the Electoral Count Act, which was tested during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol. He said senators from both parties are working on that, and it could draw Republican support.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said a bipartisan coalition should work on legislation to ensure voter access, particularly in far-flung areas like her state, and to shore up Americans' faith in democracy.
"We do not need a repeat of 2020 when by all accounts our last president, having lost the election, sought to change the results," Murkowski said.
She said the Senate debate had declined to a troubling state: "You're either a racist or a hypocrite. Really, really? Is that where we are?"
At one point, senators broke out in applause after a spirited debate between Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, among the more experienced lawmakers, and new Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., over the history of the Voting Rights Act.
Sinema sat in her chair throughout much of the day's the debate, largely glued to her phone.
Schumer contended that the fight is not over, and he ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in the states will not end up hurting voter access and turnout, comparing it to Donald Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats decided to press ahead despite the potential for high-stakes defeat as Biden is marking his first year in office with his priorities stalling in the face of solid Republican opposition and the Democrats' inability to unite around their own goals. They wanted to force senators on the record -- even their own party's holdouts -- to show voters where they stand.
Once reluctant himself to change Senate rules, Biden has stepped up his pressure on senators to do just that. But the push from the White House, including Biden's speech last week in Atlanta comparing opponents to segregationists, is seen as too late.
The Democrats' bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots -- which have become especially popular during the covid-19 pandemic -- and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with histories of voter interference, among other changes. It has passed in the House.
When the Lewis bill, named after the congressman and civil rights icon who died in 2020, was first considered by the Senate in November, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who voted for the reauthorization in 2006, said it was not needed and noted that the rest of the 1965 law and its prohibitions against discrimination remain intact. He dismissed the argument from Democrats and civil rights groups that new state laws would hurt minority voters.
"The narrative of widespread voter suppression is nothing but a scare tactic designed to support a political outcome," he argued.
Democrats said they agree that the country has changed since 1965, but they argue that doesn't mean discrimination against voters of color no longer exists and have criticized Republicans for not getting behind the Lewis bill.
When Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked McConnell if he would pause for a question, McConnell left the chamber, refusing to respond.
Durbin said he would have asked McConnell, "Does he really believe that there's no evidence of voter suppression?"
The No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said at one point, "I am not a racist."
Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws making it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus walked across the Capitol building for the proceedings.
"We want this Senate to act today in a favorable way. But if it don't, we ain't giving up," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black member of Congress.
In one speech, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., accused Democrats of peddling a "negative, false narrative of what is happening to America" by referring to the new state laws as "Jim Crow 2.0" and making comparisons to the depravities suffered by Black Americans before and during the civil rights era.
"As I keep hearing the references to Jim Crow, I ask myself how many Americans understand what Jim Crow was," said Scott, the Senate's only Black Republican, calling the comparison "offensive not just to me or Southern Americans, but offensive to millions of Americans who fought, bled and died for the right to vote."
That drew a response from Cory Booker, D-N.J., a fellow Black senator, who countered that Democrats were simply dealing with the fact that "it is more difficult for the average African American to vote than the average white American."
"Don't lecture me about Jim Crow," he later said. "I know this is not 1965. That's what makes me so outraged -- it's 2022 and they're blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented. I'm not making that up. That is a fact."
While acknowledging the likely outcome in a floor speech Wednesday morning, Schumer made a final public appeal to the holdouts, asking them to prioritize the preservation of voting rights over the preservation of the filibuster in its current form.
"Isn't protecting voting rights and preventing their diminution more important than a rule in the Senate that has not always been in existence and was not envisioned by the founders?" he said. "That is the question we should ask ourselves."
Information for this article was contributed by Mike DeBonis, Felicia Sonmez and Mariana Alfaro of The Washington Post; and by Lisa Mascaro, Farnoush Amiri and Brian Slodysko of The Associated Press.