WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans voted in unity Wednesday to block the advancement of a package of sweeping election legislation pushed by Democrats in a tense showdown over national voting rights.
The vote on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was 49-51. It broke evenly along party lines, but Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., switched his vote to "no" in the end for procedural reasons. It fell short of the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster under Senate rules.
The Senate then voted down a motion by Democrats to change the rules and impose a "talking filibuster" aimed at passing the legislation without Republican support once debate ends.
The result was 48-52, falling short of the 50 votes needed to succeed, with Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona voting with Republicans to reject the rule change.
The series of votes all but dooms federal voting rights legislation, one of President Joe Biden's top priorities, for the foreseeable future.
In a statement shortly after Democrats' rule change effort failed, Biden said he was "profoundly disappointed that the United States Senate has failed to stand up for our democracy."
"I am disappointed — but I am not deterred," he said, warning that "in state after state, Republican state legislatures are engaged in an unprecedented effort to suppress the sacred right to vote and subvert the American bedrock of free and fair elections."
Sinema said in a statement after the votes that she feared that chipping away at the 60-vote rule would "deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty and further eroding confidence in our government."
Several Republicans lingered on the floor to shake Sinema’s hand after she voted. Manchin told reporters as he left the Capitol that he is now focused on working with a bipartisan group of senators on other election security and vote protection efforts, such as revising the Electoral Count Act, an obscure 1887 election law with provisions that allies of former President Donald Trump attempted to exploit to try to reject the outcome of the 2020 election. Top Republicans opened the door to make changes to the archaic statute this month, which Democratic leaders said would not supplant the need for a broader elections overhaul.
“It’s a good win here. I mean, my goodness, that’s what caused the insurrection. That’s exactly what we should be doing,” Manchin said.
Win or lose, Schumer has been determined to put every senator on the record for what he says is a defining moment for democracy. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived on Capitol Hill after sundown to preside over the debate.
"I believe that voting rights are more important than a procedural rule," said freshman Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., whose victory last year helped give Democrats control of the chamber.
Earlier Wednesday, Manchin took to the floor to reiterate his support for the 60-vote threshold to pass most bills. He said he is a proud co-sponsor of the two voting rights measures but opposes a rule change to pass them.
"I have not — and will never — waver on this," he said, arguing that curtailing the filibuster would pour "fuel on the fire of political whiplash and dysfunction that is tearing our nation apart."
Before Manchin's speech, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., an outspoken filibuster opponent, made a last-ditch effort to persuade hm, walking over to him on the floor with a piece of paper that said, “Vote on final passage!”
The proposed rule change would require a “talking filibuster” for only the voting legislation, which would mean a simple majority could pass it after Republicans used all of the allowable time to speak.
The rule change would shift the onus away from a Senate majority to find 60 votes to advance the legislation and toward the minority to hold the floor and talk continuously to block bills.
"The eyes of history are upon us," Schumer said Wednesday. "If the Republicans block cloture on the legislation before us, I will put forward a proposal to change the Senate rules to allow for a talking filibuster on this legislation."
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said Wednesday that he will support a Senate rule change. He had not previously taken a position on the filibuster.
"If campaign finance and voting rights reforms are blocked again this week, I will support the proposed changes to pass them with a majority vote," Kelly said in a statement. "Protecting the vote-by-mail system used by a majority of Arizonans and getting dark money out of our elections is too important to let fall victim to Washington dysfunction."
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., praised Manchin and Sinema for backing the 60-vote rule earlier Wednesday, calling it "the biggest day in the history of the Senate, because we are dealing with the Senate as an institution."
The Freedom to Vote Act would create a set of standards for federal elections to ensure that voters have similar access to the ballot box nationwide. The bill would require states to offer a minimum number of days for early voting and the ability to vote by mail for any reason. It would also make Election Day a national holiday.
The other measure, named for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., would update the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation that barred discriminatory election laws.
Biden called for senators in a speech last week to end to the filibuster to allow for passage of the elections overhaul as frustration among voting rights advocates has grown over inaction on the issue.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who opposes the Freedom to Vote Act but supports the John Lewis bill, said earlier in the day that she would vote "no" on the combined package and the rules change.
"What we're faced with today — or later today — is going to be a take-it-or-leave-it vote and then an effort to change how we approach hard issues," she said.