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John Lewis voting rights bill faces steep uphill climb in Senate

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the only Republican who has endorsed the proposal named after the late civil rights leader and lawmaker.
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WASHINGTON — The For the People Act isn't the only voting rights bill with problems.

The other proposal on the Democrats' agenda — named after John Lewis, the civil rights leader and House member who died last July — faces a steep uphill climb to winning the 10 Republicans needed to break a filibuster in the Senate, according to conversations with key senators.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the only Republican who has endorsed the proposal, expressed uncertainty Monday when asked to describe a path to 60 votes in the evenly split chamber.

"I don't know. I don't know. It's a challenging one. I think we just have to be honest with it," Murkowski said. "You've got to find an awful lot of Republicans to join us on this."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Sunday dashed hopes of passing the For the People Act, a sweeping election overhaul bill that would guarantee universal access to mail-in voting and 15 days of early voting in every state.

Cementing his opposition in an opinion piece for the Charleston Gazette-Mail of West Virginia, Manchin wrote that Congress shouldn't overhaul election rules on a party-line basis and that it ought to focus instead on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act because "there is bipartisan support to pass" it.

But getting 10 GOP votes would be a slog, even if every Democrat backs it.

Murkowski's friend and fellow moderate, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, didn't say whether she supports the John Lewis proposal when she was asked Monday. Her office declined to comment.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the former chief vote counter for the Republican caucus, said he opposes the measure and intends to talk to his colleagues "so they understand what the implications are."

"It is basically doing through the back door what Democrats are trying to do through the front door on S.1 and H.R.1," he said, using the congressional names for the bills. "What I don't want to happen is if S.1 doesn't make it because people like Sen. Manchin are opposed to it that people say, 'Well, this is kind of a lesser included provision.' It's just as big of a problem as S.1."

Asked whether he believes 10 Republicans could support it, Cornyn said, "I hope not."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday said the bill is "unnecessary.”

“So there’s no threat to the voting rights law, it’s against the law to discriminate against the basis of race already, and so I think it’s unnecessary," he said.

'American democracy is at stake'

Democrats say the John Lewis bill isn't a viable substitute for S.1 because it wouldn't undo the restrictive voting laws that have passed in Republican-led states like Georgia and Florida — it would merely require certain states to get federal preapproval for future changes in voting laws.

"In my view, the future of American democracy is at stake," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats. "It is unacceptable that we have Republican legislatures and governors working actively to suppress the vote for people of color, for young people, so that they can retain power. And we have got to do everything that we possibly can to override the Republican legislatures."

A Democratic staffer who has worked on the For the People Act said the John Lewis bill doesn't have completed legislative language and isn't as far along in its development.

"It's hard to overstate what's at stake here," said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. "We need the John Lewis voting rights act because it has a powerful tool called pre-clearance, which will protect future elections. But we've got to find a way to protect the assault on democracy that's happening right now, and John Lewis alone will not change that."

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said election rules should be up to states to decide, a common view among his Republican colleagues.

He also voiced skepticism about the proposal on the table.

"There are so many problems with that particular piece of legislation that I find it very difficult to support it," Rounds said.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Democrats are going about it wrong when he was asked about the prospects of the John Lewis act.

"They're reaching for too much too soon," he said.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said he doesn't have "a feel for" the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

"I don't know enough about it. I need to hear more arguments pro and con," he said. "I don't like the fact that it involves bureaucrats and the Department of Justice telling states what they can and can't do."

Cornyn argued that the existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act are enough to protect access to the ballot box, citing the "robust level of minority voting" across the country.

"We need to identify what it is the problem we're trying to fix," he said. "And whether any additional federal laws are needed, or is Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act sufficient to protect minority voting rights? I have to believe it is."