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Sinema Imperils Voting Rights Push for the Sake of Archaic Filibuster Rule

Congressional Democrats are running out of time to prevent a wave of GOP-led redistricting and voter suppression.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema departs from a meeting with fellow Democratic senators in the basement of the U.S. Capitol Building on December 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Right-wing Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Wednesday cast further doubt on Democrats’ nascent effort to pass voting rights legislation before the end of the year by reiterating her defense of the Senate’s legislative filibuster, an archaic rule that the GOP minority has used to stonewall bills aimed at protecting the franchise.

Democratic leaders signaled Wednesday afternoon that they intend to shift their focus to a last-ditch voting rights push ahead of the new year after talks over the party’s Build Back Better package faltered, as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) indicating he wants to gut the expanded child tax credit — a non-starter for progressives.

But just hours after the party’s rapidly changing strategy began to emerge, Sinema (D-Ariz.) all but dashed any lingering hopes of concrete action on voting rights, with her spokesperson telling Politico that the senator opposes even minor tweaks to the filibuster rule.

“Senator Sinema has asked those who want to weaken or eliminate the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation which she supports if it would be good for our country to do so,” said Sinema spokesperson John LaBombard, who warned that newly passed bills could be “rescinded in a few years and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law, nationwide restrictions on vote-by-mail, or other voting restrictions currently passing in some states extended nationwide.”

Voting rights advocates were quick to slam Sinema’s latest filibuster apologetics as ridiculous, arguing it shouldn’t take a supermajority in the U.S. Senate to thwart voter suppression legislation passed along party lines by state-level Republicans.

“This is so asinine,” replied Stephen Wolf, a staff writer at Daily Kos Elections. “Republicans are already passing a wave of voting restrictions at the state level while the Supreme Court dismantles what’s left of the Voting Rights Act. Sinema doesn’t support the voting rights legislation. The filibuster just lets her pretend she does.”

Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman echoed that point:

Politico reported Wednesday that Senate Democrats are attempting to persuade Sinema and Manchin — another ardent defender of the filibuster — to support “installing the talking filibuster, which would force the minority to hold the floor and continuously put up at least 41 votes to block legislation, or creating a filibuster exception specific to the issue of elections and voting.”

Thus far the right-wing senators have not agreed to either change, even after both voted earlier this week to bypass the filibuster to raise the U.S. debt ceiling. Manchin has previously suggested he would be open to reinstituting the talking filibuster, which would represent a major shift from the current-day rules that allow senators to mount a filibuster via email.

Filibuster reform would require the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus.

“We’re carving out exceptions to the filibuster left and right depending on how important we all think an issue is. And yet we still don’t have an exception to pass voting rights? How out of touch are we?” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) lamented in a recent tweet.

For months, voting rights advocates and state lawmakers have warned that congressional Democrats are running out of time to prevent a wave of GOP-led redistricting and voter suppression — anti-democratic efforts that could prove decisive in the upcoming midterm elections. Republicans need to flip just five Democratic seats to take control of the House in 2022.

The Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise measure co-sponsored by Manchin and Sinema, would bar partisan gerrymandering, institute campaign finance reforms, and bolster ballot access. Republicans filibustered the bill when Senate Democrats attempted to pass it in October, and they would likely do so again if Democrats bring the legislation to the floor without a rule change.

Progressive advocacy groups and state lawmakers have called on Senate Democratic leaders to postpone the upcoming holiday recess and do everything in their power to pass strong voting rights legislation, including eliminating the filibuster entirely.

Emily Kirkland, executive director of the local advocacy group Progress Arizona, said in a statement late Wednesday that “in continuing to support the filibuster, Senator Sinema is single-handedly destroying any hope of progress on voting rights or democracy reform at the federal level for the foreseeable future.”

“History will not be kind to her if she continues on this path,” Kirkland added. “It is time for her to come to terms with her responsibility to the American people and end the filibuster — now.”

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