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Senate begins showdown over voting rights as Democrats brace for failure

Republicans are determined to filibuster the bill, and Democrats lack the 50 votes needed to create an exception to the filibuster.

WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders are determined to force a showdown over voting rights on the floor, even if it ends in failure for the cause.

The debate kicked off Tuesday, with Democrats using a loophole in the 60-vote rule to begin considering the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But there is no such loophole to end debate and proceed to a final vote unless Democrats change the rules.

Republicans are determined to filibuster the bills, and Democrats lack the 50 votes needed to create a exception to the filibuster. Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia firmly oppose weakening the 60-vote threshold, even though they say they support the two bills.

With those two senators appearing immovable, and with Republicans overwhelmingly opposed to the two bills, the measures are likely to fail. The Senate showdown is less a legislative strategy to pass the bills and more a political strategy to show voters that they fought for voting rights.

"Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday. "But I want to be clear: When this chamber confronts a question this important — one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy — you don’t slide it off the table and say 'never mind.'"

Schumer added: "And if Republicans choose to continue their filibuster of voting rights legislation, we must consider — and vote on — the rule changes that are appropriate and necessary to restore the Senate and make voting rights legislation possible."

Moments later, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., assailed Democrats, accusing them of hypocrisy on the filibuster given that many hadn't characterized it as a Jim Crow relic while former President Donald Trump was in office.

"Just miraculously, it became a Jim Crow relic in 2021," he said, accusing Democrats of ginning up "fake hysteria" over the right to vote.

Senate Democrats also plan to hold an in-person caucus meeting at 5 p.m. ET to discuss the path forward.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Tuesday afternoon Democrats are leaning toward voting on the "talking filibuster," which would require all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus to vote to change the rules.

“You go through the details of it, and it’s more of a talking filibuster,” said Durbin. He cautioned there was no final decision on which rules change option to take up, heading into the caucus meeting.

"Let me say, this is being discussed and being solidified this evening. So that's not the final word," said Durbin.

On Tuesday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson addressed a letter to all U.S. senators arguing that American democracy "may be standing in its final hour." To Democrats, he said it is "morally inconsistent to praise voting rights legislation while allowing a procedural rule to tank it." And to Republicans, he noted the party's past support for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.

The debate on the measures is expected to continue into Wednesday or Thursday. Once it ends, the Senate will vote on a motion to end debate and move to a final vote on the bills. That motion is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Two days after Trump spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election at a rally in Arizona, Democrats and civil rights allies continued their push on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"This is about suppressing the vote. It's about nullifying the elections," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said near the Capitol, standing beside Martin Luther King III. "It's just the filibuster in the way. So in a way, if you really truly want to honor Dr. King, don't dishonor him by using a congressional custom as an excuse for [not] protecting our democracy."

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said Monday that the Senate should create an exemption to the 60-vote rule, as it has done for legislation to change tax and spending laws.

"Nobody is asking you to give up the filibuster. And I wish they would stop saying that," he said on MSNBC. "We're asking you to do for voting rights and constitutional rights the same thing that you've done for the budget."

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris gave MLK Day remarks touting the two voting bills; Biden portrayed the struggle as a historic fight to save U.S. democracy.

Biden and other Democrats have begun to prepare voters for failure, arguing that the original civil rights and voting rights bills, which became law more than a half-century ago, took time to pass.

Harris sought to highlight the fact that along with Sinema and Manchin, all 50 Republicans are standing in the way.

"I'm not going to absolve — nor should any of us absolve — any member of the United States Senate from taking on the responsibility to follow through on the oath that they all took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," she said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said on MSNBC: "If it doesn't succeed, then we will go on. But I'll tell you this, our odds are better than the odds that John Lewis or Dr. King faced when they were fighting for change. What President Biden is doing is ultimately trying to defeat Trumpism, not just dealing with the symptom of Trump, but the underlying economic conditions that may have given rise to Trump."