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Senators clash as debate picks up over stalled voting rights bills

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Senators clash as debate picks up over stalled voting rights bills
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., walks through the Senate subway at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. He reiterated over the weekend that he's opposed to changing rules to end the filibuster. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Senate Democrats and Republican clashed on the House floor Tuesday, as they argued over the possibility of amending rules surrounding the use of the filibuster, to block debate on two pieces of voting rights legislation.

Both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act have been passed by the House, where Democrats have a larger advantage. Either bill would need 60 votes to break a GOP filibuster and pass in the Senate, where Democrats have only 50 members in the chamber.

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That has led to calls to change rules surrounding the filibuster, a tactic used to stall particular legislation through endless debate.

"The eyes of the nation will be watching what happens this week, in the United States Senate," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said during his address.

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"Just a few days removed from what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the senate has begun debate on the Freedom To Vote Act and John R Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act for the first time in this Congress. Democrats have tried for months to hold a voting debate on this floor, but we have been blocked each time by Republicans."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell R-Ky. used history in his defense of the tactic.

"You only have to go back a few years to read vigorous defense of the filibuster from our Democratic colleagues and their allies," McConnell said during his time from the floor.

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"(That same year) In a letter signed by 32 Democratic senators, our colleagues demanded, demanded, that the 60-vote thresholds stay right where it was. The Senate is not here to rubber stamp massive changes by thin majorities."

Efforts to overcome the block still do not have the support of the key Democratic holdouts -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Unless something changes, both voting rights bills are not expected to reach a floor vote because of ongoing Republican opposition.

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Schumer has led the push to carve out a specific exception for voting rights bills, that would lower the 60-vote threshold to 50.

He also called out his Republican colleagues for avoiding having a debate on the two voting rights bills. Schumer indicated that won't be the case this time around.

"Every one of them (Republican senators) voted to block even a debate on voting rights," Schumer said.

"So today we are taking this step by using a message from the House. It's just a step but an important step moving forward, in that we will finally debate this one issue that is central to the American people. You don't slide it (voting rights issue) off the table and say 'never mind'. Win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights.''

Schumer said he and his Democratic colleagues are under no illusion about the difficult task they face moving the voting rights bills forward, but reiterated a negative outcome is better than no outcome at all.

"I accept that each and every senator has the right to cast their vote on bills however they choose, that's the way democracy works. But what is happening now is very different. Republican senators are using the current version of the Senate rules to block a vote on these vital measures, to prevent this body from having a final vote," he said.

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Sinema and Manchin reiterated last weekend that they do not support changing rules to get around a filibuster. Most Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have said they support changing rules to end the filibuster to pass the voting rights bills.

The bill named after the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis would, among other things, reverse the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby vs. Holder that struck down portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law required states with a history of voting discrimination to get preclearance for voting rules changes.

The Freedom to Vote Act would make Election Day a national holiday, open early voting in all states to two weeks, including nights and weekends, allow for no-excuse mail-in voting and drop boxes along with broadening identification used to vote.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is one of two Democratic senators who have said they won't support efforts to end the filibuster, which is the chief obstacle to passing voting rights legislation. File Photo by Mandel Ngan/UPI

The efforts to protect voting rights is largely a response to a number of Republican-led states passing laws over the past year to restrict voting, following false and repeated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election by former President Donald Trump.

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