Democrats in the United States Congress are renewing their push to enact major voting rights legislation this year despite Republican opposition.
Leaders in both the US Senate and the House of Representatives announced they will take up voting rights legislation in the coming weeks.
“We’re making great progress to come together with a very strong voting rights bill that every Democrat can support,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday.
“So we intend we are going to come up with that legislation. We’re going to rally around it,” Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, told reporters at the Capitol.
Legislation on voting and election rules has emerged as a major fault line in American politics following the 2020 election, which former President Donald Trump has continued to claim without evidence that he won.
Republicans in more than a dozen state legislatures have passed new laws restricting access to ballots and potentially creating new avenues for overturning election results.
In Texas, the US’s second-most populous state, Democratic legislators have fled the state capitol to prevent Republicans from enacting restrictions on voting. Texas Republicans have ordered their arrests.
The US House is likely to take up a narrower measure later this month – the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for the late Black civil rights leader and congressman.
The House bill would renew federal authority to review and approve significant changes to balloting in states with histories of racial discrimination, giving the US Justice Department power to overrule new restrictions passed by Republican-led state legislatures.
President Joe Biden, who has condemned new state laws proposed by Republicans, is facing increasing pressure from party activists to be more engaged in the fight over voting legislation.
“The White House must now prioritise voting rights legislation with the same level of urgency and commitment as the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told The Associated Press.
Alarmed by new legislation in Georgia, Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania and other Republican states, Biden gave a fiery speech on July 13 in which he warned of “an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote, and fair and free elections”.
At the president’s direction, the Justice Department is attempting to challenge in federal courts the new Republican state laws.
The DOJ filed suit against the state of Georgia on June 25 alleging its new election law seeks to roll back voting by African Americans.
Overnight in the Senate on Wednesday, Schumer attempted to bring a sweeping elections measure to the floor for consideration and was blocked by Republican objections.
“Republicans have formed a total wall of opposition against progress on voting rights,” Schumer said.
“That’s what we have come to – total Republican intransigence,” Schumer said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of wanting “to start tearing up the ground rules of our democracy” and write “new ones, of course, on a purely partisan basis”.
The outlook for federal legislation is clouded. The Senate is evenly divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats but Democrats control the agenda because Vice President Kamala Harris casts a tie-breaking vote.
Senate rules at present require 60 votes to pass new policy and without Republican support, Democrats cannot move forward with voting reforms.
Activists have advocated the Senate waive the 60-vote requirement to enact sweeping federal legislation that would reverse the new, more restrictive bills in Republican state legislatures.
Key Democratic moderates so far have rejected changing Senate rules to ram through a voting bill. But time is of the essence if Democrats want to get the measure signed into law before the 2022 congressional elections.
Schumer promised the Senate would act. “Republicans refusing to support anything on voting rights is not an excuse for Democrats to do nothing,” he said.
A group of eight Democratic senators including liberals and moderates are working to develop a compromise version of the “For the People Act”, the Democrats sweeping election reform bill rejected by Republicans in June, Schumer said.