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Schumer: 'We made progress' on voting bill, filibuster rules

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in an interview Thursday that Democrats “made progress” toward changing the Senate's filibuster rules to advance sweeping voting legislation, despite the dramatic collapse of the package that his party says is central to protecting democracy.

From his office overlooking the National Mall with portraits of the Roosevelts above his desk — Franklin D. on one side, Theodore on the other — Schumer took stock of what was widely seen as a striking setback for President Joe Biden on his first anniversary in office as the Democrats’ signature voting bill unraveled.

“If the choice was to go forward or not go forward, we’re much better off having gone forward,” Schumer told The Associated Press.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responds to questions from reporters during a press conference regarding the Democratic party's shift to focus on voting rights at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (AP PhotoAmanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The legislation has been one of the party’s top priorities in Congress since Democrats gained control of both houses and the White House, bringing unified party power to Washington.

The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is seen by party leaders and civil rights advocates as essential to protecting the right to vote as Republican-led states nationwide put in place laws that will make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to cast ballots. States are curbing early voting and mail-in ballots, both popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, and requiring various types of voter identification, among other changes.

Schumer, a Democrat from New York in his first term as majority leader, has been under enormous pressure to deliver the voting package as it languished in Congress, an uphill struggle in the evenly split Senate that by many accounts appeared doomed to fail.

He didn't have the votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, as all 50 GOP senators lined up against the package, criticizing it as federal overreach into state-run elections.

Then the bill was dealt a devastating blow when two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, refused to change the party’s rules in this one case to overcome the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold and allow passage with a simple majority.

But Schumer, who has been reading a biography of former President Ulysses S. Grant, defended his decision to pursue this week’s vote, framing it as part of the long arc of the nation’s civil rights struggles that continue to this day.

“He showed me how, you know, the right to vote is essential,” Schumer said.

Schumer pointed to the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was left beaten and bloody as a young man marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, and the persistence of Black Americans and others to keep pressing to secure equal access to the ballot.

“Look at the civil rights movement,” he said.

It took several sessions of Congress before civil rights and voting rights legislation would ultimately be signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I mean, you got to pursue things and you got to put people on the record,” Schumer said. “Our job is to vote.”

After the legislation collapsed late Wednesday, Biden said he was “profoundly disappointed” by the outcome.

But the president also said he was not deterred and would explore all options to protect the vote.

Not long ago, a number of Democratic senators — many still in office —- signed onto a 2017 letter opposing filibuster changes. During the Senate debate, several of them rose to explain why they were willing to change course for this bill.

In the end, all but Manchin and Sinema were ready to adjust the rules to pass the voting bill.

“We made progress,” Schumer said. “It’s amazing to me that our caucus — 48 people — said change the rules.”