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Senator sees debt limit increase as model to pass voting legislation

Discontent is simmering among some Democrats that voting legislation has stalled because of Republican opposition.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., is frustrated that the Senate found a way to pass an increase in the debt limit without any Republican support but can’t use the same mechanism to pass stalled voting legislation. 

“We think it’s so important that we change the rule in order to save the economy,” Warnock said in an interview in his office Tuesday afternoon. “Well, the warning lights on our democracy are blinking right now, and we seem unwilling to respond with the same urgency to protect the democracy that we have to protect the economy.”

Discontent is simmering among Democrats in Washington who have pushed for Congress to treat voting legislation with more urgency. Attempts to pass a bill in the Senate have been met with uniform Republican opposition, making it impossible to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Warnock pointed to a one-time rule change the Senate passed last week that would allow an increase in the debt limit with a simple majority vote. He said the Senate was “hypocritical.”

The debt limit increase was the product of an agreement between Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The Senate changed the rules last week to allow a one-time increase in the debt limit.

Warnock advocates changing the rules to pass voting legislation, but he has been warned that doing so would have grave repercussions for the Senate.

Critics of a so-called carve-out for voting legislation say it would create a slippery slope and deny future Democratic minorities the ability to use to the filibuster to block Republicans.

A senior Republican aide argued that comparing the bipartisan rule change to allow the debt limit vote to a unilateral rule change to allow voting legislation to move forward would be "like comparing apples to rocket ships."

Warnock said he contemplated voting against lifting the debt limit — a move that, in the evenly divided Senate, could have pushed the U.S. to default and had wide-ranging economic repercussions.

Warnock, a pastor at the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said he thought about what Martin Luther King Jr., the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Fannie Lou Hamer would do.

“Then I thought about the vulnerable communities that I also represent,” which, Warnock said, could be devastated financially if the debt limit isn’t addressed. “And ironically, they’re the same communities that are suffering under these voter suppression tactics.”

Warnock said he had conversations with Schumer, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and other senators over the weekend.

Compromise voting legislation forged by Manchin gained the support of all 50 Democratic-voting senators. But it remains stuck in the Senate without the support of at least 10 Republicans.

Pressure has been building on Senate Democrats to act on voting rights, as the issue has been stalled. Senators have been discussing a path forward for months, including a rules change, which Manchin has opposed.

Manchin said Monday that he is talking with his colleagues to “look at the rules that make this place work in a more effective and efficient” way.

A group of moderate senators — Tim Kaine, D-Va., Angus King, I-Maine, and Jon Tester, D-Mont. — were meeting with Manchin on Tuesday to continue the discussions.

Warnock said he is still grappling with a Senate that would change the rules to avoid a debt default but not to pass voting legislation.

“I’ve been placed in an untenable situation by what I’m being asked to do today. I’m being asked to do something that is for me a place of moral dissonance,” he said. “If you change the rule to respond to the debt ceiling while the ceiling on democracy is crashing around is — the message you’re sending is that the economy matters but democracy can wait.”