Late Wednesday night on the U.S. Senate floor, the moment that the Democratic Party faithful had been waiting for finally arrived: senators voted on changing the chamber’s rules to weaken the 60-vote threshold standing in the way of their marquee voting rights legislation.
It took more than a year of Democratic outrage and organizing to reach that moment. And it took just a few minutes for a majority of senators to snuff it out.
All 50 Republican senators, along with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), dispensed with the proposal to weaken the filibuster for the purpose of passing a voting rights package supported solely by Democrats and uniformly opposed by the GOP, amounting to a final tally of 52-48.
It was not a dramatic outcome, despite the marathon of floor speeches from seemingly every member of the Senate on the historic, existential significance of the vote at hand. Even Vice President Kamala Harris, who had presided over an earlier procedural vote that also failed, had abandoned the doomed effort earlier that evening.
Failure for Democrats had been clear for days on this specific proposal, which aimed to change the power of the filibuster by forcing those wishing to block legislation to talk ad nauseam, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style.
Manchin repeatedly made clear that he would not support any alterations to the filibuster, even this relatively modest one. Sinema had, too.
Hours before the scheduled vote on Wednesday, Manchin sought yet again to make his opposition clearer in his own Senate floor speech, timed just as President Joe Biden was at the White House giving a rare press conference, where he talked about the urgent need to pass election reforms.
With roughly three dozen senators in the room and staff lined up down the walls of the chamber, Manchin often turned away from his lectern, speaking to his fellow Democrats directly.
“I respect that you have changed your position on this,” Manchin said, referencing his many colleagues who previously opposed Senate rule changes. “I would hope that you would respect that I have not. And I have never wavered on this.”
By and large, Manchin’s colleagues listened intently, with exceptions like Sinema, who spent the overwhelming majority of the speech scrolling through her phone.
That served a fitting splitscreen for Democrats’ tortured and ultimately doomed campaign to muscle through a significant Senate rule change with the thinnest possible majority.
In months of setting up the endgame of this fight, Biden, Schumer, and scores of Democrats spent precious time and political capital just to get this far. But a 48-52 vote is as far as they will get for the foreseeable future, and Democrats’ fight to enact new voting rights legislation is dead in this session of Congress.
During his press conference, Biden spoke in surprisingly dark tones about the impending failure of the effort and, in one response, seemed to question whether Americans could trust that elections would be conducted fairly if the bills didn’t pass.
"Well, it all depends on whether or not we’re able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election," he said.
In November, hundreds of Democratic candidates will run in states with new GOP-written election laws drawn up in response to the party’s losses in 2020.
Prior to the doomed vote on Wednesday, some Democrats spun this legislation as being only the first step in a long series of attempts to protect voting rights. Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (D-OH) told reporters, “We will come back again.”
Rep. Nikema Williams (D-GA), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s voter protection effort, told The Daily Beast Democrats this year will also focus on organizing beyond the Hill.
“We’re going to continue to be out in the streets, taking our message to the people… We have an inside and outside game going. So, this is not the end today” she said.