One of the most powerful Democrats in Washington has issued a frank warning to members of his own party, saying they need to find a way to pass major voting rights legislation or they will lose control of Congress.
The comments from Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, came days after the House of Representatives approved a sweeping voting rights bill that would enact some of the most dramatic expansions of the right to vote since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even though Democrats also control the US Senate, the bill is unlikely to pass the chamber because of a procedural rule, the filibuster, that requires 60 votes to advance legislation.
In an interview with the Guardian this week, Clyburn called out two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have opposed getting rid of the filibuster. Republicans across the country are advancing sweeping measures to curtail voting rights and letting expansive voting rights legislation die would harm Democrats, Clyburn said.
“There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” he said. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”
If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights
Clyburn issued that warning ahead of the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when law enforcement officers brutally beat voting rights activists in Selma, Alabama.
Clyburn and other House Democrats have been hoping the early days of Joe Biden’s administration will be marked by passage of a bill named after the late congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights hero who was nearly killed on Bloody Sunday. That measure would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, gutted by the supreme court in 2013, that required places with a history of voting discrimination to get election changes cleared by the federal government before they took effect.
“Here we are talking about the Voting Rights Act he worked so hard for and that’s named in his honor and they’re going to filibuster it to death? That ain’t gonna happen,” Clyburn said.
But the likelihood of that bill becoming law is doubtful under current procedures. Democrats expect Republicans to find a reason to filibuster it after its expected passage through the House of Representatives and consideration in the Senate. Thus Clyburn is calling for some kind of workaround of the filibuster in the current legislative climate, in which the Senate is split 50-50 and use of the legislative obstructing mechanism is all too common.
“I’m not going to say that you must get rid of the filibuster. I would say you would do well to develop a Manchin-Sinema rule on getting around the filibuster as it relates to race and civil rights,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn said he has not discussed changing the filibuster with Biden, who has expressed support for keeping the filibuster in place.
The reality of their slim majority and the regularity of legislation dying through filibuster has caused Democrats to opt to pass the Biden administration’s Covid relief package through a budgetary process called reconciliation, which is not subject to the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold. Clyburn wants to see the same thing with civil rights.
“You can’t filibuster the budget,” Clyburn said. “That’s why we have reconciliation rules. We need to have civil and voting rights reconciliation. That should have had reconciliation permission a long, long time ago.”
He noted: “If the headlines were to read that the John R Lewis Voting Rights Act was filibustered to death it would be catastrophic.”
Clyburn’s comments underscore the difficulty the federal government has in moving any bill because of arcane legislative roadblocks. Broadly popular proposals like a minimum wage increase or a voting rights bill seem dead on arrival. And that has left veteran Senate Democrats skeptical that even a bill protecting Americans’ rights to vote has a chance. First, the filibuster would have to go, and that seems unlikely at the moment.
“The short-term prospects of doing away with the filibuster seem remote just because there aren’t the votes to do that,” said Luke Albee, a former chief of staff to the Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Pat Leahy of Vermont. “My gut is it will take six months, eight months, a year of total obstructionism on the Republican side for senators who are skeptical now of getting rid of the filibuster to at least have a more open mind about it.”
Albee also said it was possible that a Voting Rights Act could face strong Republican opposition, despite Clyburn’s confidence.
“There’s no one that hopes it passes more than me but I just worry it’s a toxic environment,” Albee added.