Pass Voting Rights and Restore the Senate

By Senator Patty Murray

The people of Washington state and my colleagues in the Senate know I am not one for a shouting match or wild hyperbole. They know that when it will help the people of Washington state, I try to work with Republicans and Democrats, and that I want to continue to do so.

But as someone whose focus is always on getting things done for Washington state and our country, it is clear to me that the Senate is broken. Outdated, misused procedure is getting in the way of debate and legislation. And with all our country faces right now, we’ve absolutely got to fix it.

When a single Senator can block even a debate on legislation a majority of the Senate and the country supports — just by hitting send on an email — that’s an issue. When a single Senator can hold up the otherwise uncomplicated, run-of-the-mill confirmation of very non-controversial administration officials with a phone call–that’s absurd.

Why did it take months of back and forth and legislative hard-ball to confirm our ambassador to France? And why do millions of Americans wonder why bills that pass the House come to die in the Senate, without even a debate? It’s because a single member of this institution can shut down even the opportunity to confirm a nominee or debate legislation that a majority of this chamber supports.

This is all at a time when our country faces more challenges — that are more urgent and consequential — than at almost any time I can remember.

First among these is the coordinated, national attack on the right to vote.

Right now, in states across the country, far-right Republican lawmakers are passing dangerously restrictive voter suppression laws with simple majorities. Laws that make it difficult for Americans — in particular people of color — to cast a ballot and make their voice heard. And Americans all over the country are asking what will we do about it?

I have made very clear I believe protecting the right to vote will be the most important thing we do this Congress. But right now, every single time the Senate has tried to even debate voting rights legislation, Senate procedure has empowered Republican obstruction over Democratic action.

When we wanted to debate the Freedom to Vote Act to do things like make Election Day a holiday, end gerrymandering, or make early voting and voting by mail an option for everyone, Republicans — every single one — blocked a debate.

When we wanted to debate the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would build on the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent discrimination on the basis of race at the ballot box, Republicans — all but one — blocked a debate. And this was a bill whose previous reauthorizations have had strong bipartisan support.

So Democrats, who control the White House, the House, and the Senate are left with no legislative options to address the dangerous rise of voter suppression laws sweeping the nation.

That can’t be the end of the road. Especially not at a time when far-right lawmakers are increasingly making baseless claims of election fraud and pushing conspiracy theories meant to undermine the legitimacy of any election results they don’t like.

The right to vote, to make your voice heard, is the cornerstone of our democracy, yes. And it’s not just the right to be heard at the ballot box. It’s also about whether the Senate can debate, and act, on all the issues Americans send their senators to the Capitol to try to figure out. When we can’t even debate major bills the House passes, we are stifling the voices of people from every part of this country who want to see Congress tackle issues as important as health care costs, gun safety, pollution, and climate change, education — and so much more.

I’ve thought long and hard about what we do about this. I’m someone who believes strongly in the right of the minority party to have a voice. I know personally that the filibuster has helped me protect issues I care about deeply — for my state and for the country. And I believe our country would be better off — and the Senate would be more productive — if there could be more bipartisan work completed on the issues people are feeling in their own lives.

But today — Senate procedure is making the Senate more partisan, not more functional.

The rules are pushing Democrats and Republicans further into their corners rather than towards collaboration, making it unbelievably easy to block legislative action, and nearly impossible to start it. This means Americans don’t get to see where elected officials stand on issues as consequential as protecting the right to vote. And senators don’t even have to talk, in some cases, about why they disagree on an issue that demands action.

That’s why I’ve been speaking with my colleagues about two important steps I believe we need to act on as soon as possible this year. First; I believe that we absolutely have to carve out a path to pass strong federal voting rights protections this Congress. Second; we need to update the way this body functions in order to restore the Senate to make sure the world’s greatest deliberative body actually deliberates the issues and challenges the American people are facing.

I think, if you oppose a piece of legislation that other senators want to pass, you should have to explain to the American people why. You should have to come to the floor of the United States Senate and make your case, so voters can see and decide for themselves who is representing their best interests. So voters can see who is refusing to support legislation that would make Election Day a federal holiday and end partisan gerrymandering. I would hope that every senator is ready and willing to explain to the American people why they support or oppose a bill — isn’t that what we were elected to do?

To be absolutely clear: we cannot let the filibuster stop us from ever debating voting rights or any other issue one member might find objectionable. If it’s the filibuster or democracy, I’ll choose our democracy. If it's Senate rules or a Senate that works for the American people, I’ll choose a Senate that works. And I am urging my Senate colleagues to make that same choice.