WASHINGTON — By forcing a tense Senate showdown over voting rights, Senator Chuck Schumer violated a cardinal rule of congressional leadership: Don’t take the floor unless you’re sure you have the votes to win.
Mr Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, decidedly failed to get the votes on Wednesday to get his party’s voting rights package approved. He and everyone else in the Senate knew long before the Democrats failed to break a Republican filibuster against the legislation and then lost a bid to revise the filibuster rules when two Democrats refused to go along.
The result left Democrats disappointed and saddened that they still have no legislative response to what they see as an alarming trend of Republican-led states imposing voting restrictions to reduce minority voter participation.
But when they assessed Wednesday’s wide-ranging debate and solid party unity on voting rights — if not on Senate procedure — Mr. Schumer and other Democrats said they believed they were doing the right thing, even though it delivered the wrong outcome for them.
Their view is that Democrats failed to identify the state’s new voting laws as an existential threat to democracy and make voting rights their top priority and then shy away from voting because they couldn’t prevail.
Far from defeated, in an interview on Thursday, Mr. Schumer expressed pride at the way the Democrats had handled the fight. He said Democratic senators and their allies recognized that such a battle cannot be won all at once, but cannot be won at all if the battle is not joined together.
“As far as civil rights are concerned, it’s not linear,” Mr Schumer said, noting a positive response from activists who urged Democrats to question voting rights, even if they failed to do so. “You have to keep fighting. And they see that the Democrats really fought for something we believed in, even if we couldn’t win.”
“This issue is unlike any other,” said Mr. Schumer, who dismissed criticism that Democrats should have waited as ridiculous if they couldn’t produce 60 votes to overcome the filibuster or 50 votes from their caucus to unilaterally change the rules. and approve the bill. “It is the fundamental backbone of our country: the right to vote. But it is also the core of our party.”
It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that the Democrats would fall short.
Despite vocal opposition to the rule change from two of their party’s centrists, Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Democrats hoped they could be convinced that protecting the right to vote — and protecting of some politically risky colleagues – outweighs the preservation of a characteristic piece of Senate procedure. After all, many other Democrats who had long been reluctant to tinker with the filibuster had changed their minds because of the voting laws that rose in Republican-led states after the 2020 election.
But it wasn’t supposed to be. Both holdouts clung tightly to their guns, refusing to yield, punctuated by Ms. Sinema’s loud “yes” voice to enforce the rules.
Republicans remain baffled by Mr. Schumer’s strategy. They can’t understand why he would want to highlight the divisions between most of his caucus and Senators Manchin and Sinema, sparking outrage over two senators he will need on other issues as Democrats try to revive President Biden’s stalled agenda. to breathe life into.
They cannot understand why he would force 47 of his members to join him in support of bringing down the filibuster in a lost cause, a vote Republicans will now seek to exploit by accusing Democrats of a power grab in pursuing progressive initiatives such as granting statehood to the District of Columbia and expanding the Supreme Court.
Minority leader Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell called the debate that ended with the filibuster intact as arguably the most important day in Senate history. He said the vote would haunt Democrats even if they failed.
“An unscrupulous attempt to seize power is not harmless just because it fails,” he warned Democrats. “Voting to break the Senate isn’t free just because a bipartisan majority of your colleagues has the wisdom to stop you.”
Democrats brushed aside such talk, saying they found the clash cathartic. They said it brought a number of benefits, including simply reminding lawmakers that the Senate is still able to conduct intense and consistent debate. Even some Republicans said the day-long rhetorical battle over voting rights, which brought dozens of senators to speak, vote and engage in procedural hassles, was a refreshing change from the usual disjointed action and called filibusters.
“It certainly delivered the closet we’ve seen in a Senate debate in 15 years,” said Oregon Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley and a leading proponent of curbing the filibuster.
Democrats said political pressure also brought Republicans to the table for discussions about potential changes in federal election administration and presidential election counting to prevent a repeat of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which could potentially path to compromise.
Mr. McConnell said Thursday again that Republicans would consider changes to the Electoral Count Act to close the loopholes that Donald J. Trump and his allies were trying to use to undo the election results.
“It’s clearly flawed,” he said of the existing law. “This is directly related to what happened on January 6, and we should find a two-pronged way to resolve it.”
Even chairman Nancy Pelosi, a co-founder of the “don’t vote if you don’t have votes” club, said Mr. Schumer was doing the right thing by forcing action.
“You had to vote,” she told reporters on Thursday, reflecting a view shared by progressive activists who had previously expressed some frustration with Democrats.
“There was a legislative dance going on about who would vote for it and this Washington inside political game of ‘We don’t have votes and we don’t want people to take a stand,'” said Marc Morial, the head of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. “It was really important to get everyone on the plate and set a marker.”
Mr. Schumer said Democrats are still thinking about their future voting rights approach and that they can break elements of the legislation for individual votes.
“While last night’s vote was disappointing, it won’t stop Democrats in the Senate from continuing our fight against voter suppression, dirty money and partisan gerrymandering,” he said Thursday. “For such an important issue, it would have been unacceptable not to do everything we could.”