Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) arrives for a caucus meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol Building on Dec. 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C. As legislative action for the Build Back Better act remains stalled, Senators are voting on judicial and diplomatic nominees ahead of the Holiday recess. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Arizona’s enigmatic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema remains opposed to weakening the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for moving ahead on legislation, even as other Democrats are floating the idea of making an exception to the chamber’s rules to pass major voting rights measures.
In a statement to States Newsroom, a Sinema spokeswoman said the senator supports the voting rights bills but fears that changing Senate rules would ultimately undermine the bills’ goals and Americans’ faith in the legislative process.
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Sinema’s fellow Senate Democrats have renewed calls this week to bypass the 60-vote threshold for voting rights legislation as the end of the year and a holiday recess loom.
“Senator Sinema strongly supports and has voted for (voting rights legislation) — and will continue to support such efforts, because she believes that the right to vote and faith in our electoral process are critical to the health of our democracy,” her spokeswoman, Hannah Hurley, wrote in a Thursday email.
“As she has throughout her time in the U.S. House and Senate, Senator Sinema also continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government,” Hurley continued.
On Wednesday, Colorado’s junior senator, John Hickenlooper, said, “It’s time to change the filibuster to protect voting rights,” and the state’s senior senator, Michael Bennet, confirmed to Newsline through a spokesperson that he supported elimination of the filibuster.
Senate rules require 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to override a filibuster, a tool the chamber’s minority party can use to block legislation by refusing to yield the floor and thus indefinitely delay a vote.
The rule has been updated several times throughout the chamber’s history.
A two-thirds threshold was established in 1917 and lowered to 60 of 100 in 1975. Democrats in 2013 under former Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada eliminated the requirement for executive branch and judicial nominees other than for the Supreme Court. Four years later, Republicans under Mitch McConnell of Kentucky included high court nominees in that exception.
Just last week, the chamber voted to change its rules to allow a simple majority vote to raise the debt ceiling.
In a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who before being elected was a preacher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, called for using the same procedure to pass a voting rights measure.
“As we cast that vote to begin addressing the debt ceiling, this same chamber is allowing the ceiling of our democracy to crash in around us,” Warnock said Thursday. “The rules of the Senate have prevented us from moving that conversation forward. We could not imagine changing the rules – that is, until last week.”
Restrictions on voting rights
Sinema has called for a public debate on Senate rules so “all Americans can hear and fully consider” ideas, including ending the filibuster, Hurley said. Sinema is willing to engage in “good-faith discussions” with colleagues about changing rules, she added.
Democrats say a federal voting rights law is needed to counteract a series of voting restrictions passed by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country.
“GOP state legislatures are passing the most egregious restrictions on voting rights we’ve seen since segregation,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted Thursday. “We are working to respond to these attacks by passing legislation to protect the right to vote.”
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and a handful of Senate Democrats, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III and Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, met on a video call Thursday to discuss the path to passing voting rights bills.
Klobuchar said she favored eliminating the filibuster to pass one of Democrats’ major priorities, but understood that others in her party disagreed, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.
In a statement on his major domestic spending proposal, Biden said he was also working with senators to pass voting rights.
“We must also press forward on voting rights legislation, and make progress on this as quickly as possible,” he said. “I had a productive conversation today with several Senators about how we can get this vital legislation passed. Our democracy is at stake.”
With Harris’ tie-breaking vote, Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority in the 50-50 Senate. They have tried three times to pass voting rights measures that all Senate Democrats support, only to be blocked by a near-unified Republican caucus.
The House passed a sweeping voting rights package in March that dealt with dark money in campaigns, voter suppression and election security.
In their latest attempt last month on voting rights on another bill, Democrats partially won over Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who voted with Democrats to limit debate but stopped short of endorsing the underlying legislation.
—States Newsroom reporter Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.
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