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Schumer threatens to change Senate filibuster rules by Jan 17 if Republicans keep blocking voting-rights legislation

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks at the US Capitol in June 2021.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered an ultimatum in a letter to party colleagues. 
  • He said if the GOP blocks voter-rights bills, he will try to get round them by changing Senate rules.
  • The filibuster means that the majority party must find 60 or more votes to pass most bills.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will seek to change Senate rules if Republicans continue to block the passage of legislation designed to protect voting rights. 

In a letter to party colleagues Monday, Schumer said the Senate must adapt to respond to moves to restrict access to voting by Republican-led state legislatures across the US.

he set his targets on the filibuster — the trademark feature of the Senate which means that most legislation requires the votes of at least 60 of the 100 senators to pass.

“The Senate was designed to evolve and has evolved many times in our history,” wrote Schumer, linking the Republican voting rights restrictions to the January 6 Capitol attack, whose first anniversary is two days away

“The fight for the ballot is as old as the Republic. Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy,” Schumer continued.

“We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.”

Passing a federal bill to defend voting rights is among the top domestic priorities of the President Joe Biden’s administration.

But Republicans have blocked two such bills, the most recent being the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in November. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the bills are a bid by Democrats to secure an unfair advantage in elections, and violate state rights. 

Democrats face a Republican filibuster on all such efforts, since the party’s caucus has only 50 votes and the tie-breaker from Vice President Kamala Harris.

Changing Senate rules would require the unanimous support of Democratic senators, and so far two — Krysten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have opposed any potential changes. 

In comments to NPR, a Democratic source said that discussions were focused on two possibilities. The first, per the source, was insisting on a “talking filibuster”, whereby the GOP would have to block legislation by talking indefinitely to stop its passage.

At present, senators can filibuster simply by making their opposition clear without actually speaking for hours on end.

The second idea was a legislative to temporarily suspend the filibuster to pass the voting-rights bill, and then to restore it.

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