Thursday , May 19 2022
In Voting Rights Fight, Democrats Train Ire on Sinema and Manchin

In Voting Rights Fight, Democrats Train Ire on Sinema and Manchin

WASHINGTON — This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, with a fight for voting rights again at the center of the political agenda, one quotation from the slain civil rights leader’s vast repertoire dominated liberals’ calls to action.

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail in this purpose, they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” ran the quote circulated on Monday by many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who openly called it a jab.

The contemporary targets of those words Dr. King wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963 were two particular white moderates, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. They were singled out not because they oppose the far-reaching voting rights bill that was before the Senate on Wednesday — they and 48 other senators who caucus with the Democrats support it — but because they refuse to obliterate the Senate’s filibuster rule to pass it over the opposition of all 50 Republicans.

The remarkable vitriol Democratic activists are training on two members of their own party has largely given Republicans a pass for blocking the bill and standing by new state laws devised to limit access to the ballot box and empower partisan actors to administer elections and count votes.

Republican senators such as Rob Portman of Ohio, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Roy Blunt of Missouri would face few repercussions for breaking with their party’s leaders and backing such legislation, since they will be retiring at the end of the year.

Yet they are standing against the Democratic bill, and have given little indication that they would be willing to negotiate a narrower ballot-access measure. Mr. Portman said on Tuesday that Democrats were using “overwrought, exaggerated and deeply divisive” accusations to push “an unprecedented federal takeover of our election system.”

Democratic leaders tried to keep the focus on Republicans.

“It hasn’t been that long since Republicans and Democrats stood together and agreed that this was the right thing to do, to make sure that there was no discrimination against American voters,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said on the Senate floor. “The last time we did this was 16 years ago, in 2006, and on a nearly unanimous basis.”

But Democratic activists have spent far more time and energy trying to break the will of Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema on the filibuster than they have working to win over Republicans on the actual legislation.

On Tuesday, Emily’s List, the largest contributor to female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights and by far the largest donor to Ms. Sinema’s 2018 Senate campaign, threatened to withdraw its support for her unless she relented on the filibuster.

“Right now, Senator Sinema’s decision to reject the voices of allies, partners and constituents who believe the importance of voting rights outweighs that of an arcane process means she will find herself standing alone in the next election,” the political action committee said in a statement.

The abortion-rights group NARAL indicated that it, too, would withdraw its support. Two groups that helped turn out voters for Ms. Sinema in 2018, Living United for Change in Arizona and Stand Up America, also issued a rebuke.

“Enough is enough,” the groups said in a joint statement on Wednesday. “If Senator Sinema turns her back on the Arizonans fighting to protect the freedom to vote in Arizona and across the country, if she decides to embrace the likes of George Wallace and turn her back to the Black and brown organizers who delivered her Senate victory for her, then we will turn our backs on her, too.”

Ms. Sinema has not given an inch. In a statement on Tuesday night, she addressed the issue directly, saying, “The Senate’s 60-vote threshold to end debate on legislation has been used repeatedly to protect against wild swings in federal policy, including in the area of protecting women’s health care.”

“Honest disagreements are normal,” she continued, “and I respect those who have reached different conclusions on how to achieve our shared goals of addressing voter suppression and election subversion, and making the Senate work better for everyday Americans.”

Mr. Manchin has not budged from his position either, although in a floor speech on Wednesday afternoon, he seemed to acknowledge the personal attacks he has been weathering from his own party. Many of his Democratic colleagues have changed their stance on weakening the filibuster, he said.

“I do not and will not attack the contents of the character of anybody who has changed their position,” he said. “And I would hope you would give me the same opportunity and not attack me.”

That did little to alleviate the pressure. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, even hinted that they could support primary challenges to their balking colleagues.

Following Democrats’ failed vote on Wednesday night to change the filibuster rules, Mr. Sanders vented his frustration with the pair, saying, “It’s not just this vote. These are people who I think have undermined the president of the United States.

Earlier on Wednesday, his political organization, Our Revolution, emailed supporters seeking to capitalize on supporters’ ire to raise money.

“If you agree that it’s time to stop being polite and to turn up the grass-roots heat on Sinema and Manchin, rush a donation now!” the message said.

Activists say they are targeting the two Democratic holdouts because they are the only real pressure point available to them; Republicans cannot be swayed.

“To be very clear, the entire goal of this campaign is to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” said Adrien Horton, an activist from Denver who was on Day 7 of a hunger strike aimed at winning enactment of the measures. “We are pressuring entire Senate as a whole. We are targeting Republicans. That being said, we are not concerned with the process. We are concerned with the outcome.”

Of the two possible ways to achieve that outcome, it is far more likely that Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema would reverse themselves on the filibuster than it is that 10 Republicans would change their minds on the bill’s substance, though neither appears probable.

The spectacle of Democrats going after Democrats may not help longer-term ambitions. President Biden needs Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin to come around if he is to win passage of any version of the climate change and social welfare bill that is stalled in the Senate.

And Democrats, facing sagging poll numbers and gale-force political headwinds, need some momentum if they hope to avoid staggering losses in the midterm elections this November. During Wednesday’s debate, which stretched throughout the day and into the evening, Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin joined fellow Democrats on the Senate floor as one Democrat after another spoke at length, warning of the threat to democracy posed by state-level ballot restrictions, and declared that no Senate rule was worth jeopardizing the sacred right to vote.

Republicans were just as adamant that Democrats were concocting a crisis to justify a federal takeover of local elections to skew the results toward their party — and were willing to destroy rules intended to foster bipartisan cooperation to do it.

Democrats still hoped Wednesday’s debate and votes would highlight the differences between the two political parties — not the fractures within their party over the Senate’s rules.

“Look, I think there is a sharp contrast when the members of one party are united in endorsing and seeking to advance voting rights and access to the ballot, and the members of the other party are not willing to do that,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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