WASHINGTON (CN) — A yearlong effort by Democrats to make it easier for Americans to vote worked its way through the House, but the bill now faces an uphill battle in the Senate where Republicans oppose the legislation and some Democrats are hesitant to change the chamber's rules to pass it.
The House voted 220-203 along party lines Thursday morning to approve a previously unassuming NASA bill into which Democrats ultimately inserted two voting rights amendments, The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
These policies would create new federal standards for elections, making Election Day a federal holiday, laying out rules for mail-in and early voting, and ending partisan gerrymandering.
The John Lewis amendment would also restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act previously overturned by the Supreme Court that requires federal oversight of changes to voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.
Democrats made voting rights expansion a chief focus last year to combat a tide of restrictions that swept across GOP-led states in the wake of former President Donald Trump's 2020 election defeat.
The House previously passed both two voting rights bills as independent legislation, only to see the legislation filibustered and stalled in the Senate by Republicans.
By adding them into the NASA bill, legislation the Senate has already approved, as amendments, Democrats will avoid a filibuster in the Senate on whether to consider the legislation and only face a filibuster from Republicans on the legislation itself.
But that final filibuster confrontation requires 60 votes to end it and is likely going to be a steep hurdle for Democrats to overcome.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?” President Joe Biden said during a speech in Atlanta earlier this week.
Republicans in the Senate are unlikely to budge on their opposition to the legislation, and some members of the Democratic party oppose making changes to the filibuster to get voting rights passed.
Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are quick to defect from positions supported by fellow Democrats to burnish their reputations as moderates in their largely conservative home states, have long been opposed elimination of the filibuster to get voting rights legislation through the Senate.
Defending that stance from the Senate floor Thursday, Sinema she described the filibuster as a "critical" safeguard to encourage policies that have mass voter support.
"When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will be inextricably pushed from the middle toward the extremes. I understand there are some on both sides of the aisle who prefer it that way, but I do not." Sinema said.
"I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country," Sinema said.
The loss of Sinema means the likely end of the voting rights legislation, with Democrats only other alternative being finding a way to get 10 Republican senators on board — a bipartisan coalition that appears increasingly unlikely as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has only doubled down on his criticisms of Democrats and the legislation in recent days.
McConnell criticized an impassioned speech Biden gave on voting rights earlier this week as "profoundly unpresidential" and slammed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for considering changes to the filibuster.
"If my colleague tries to break the Senate to silence those millions of Americans, we will make their voices heard in ways that are more inconvenient for the majority and this White House than what anybody has seen in living memory,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday.