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Senate nears filibuster clash over voting rights as Democrats brace for failure

WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders are determined to force a showdown over voting rights on the floor, even if it ends in failure for the cause.

The debate is expected to kick off Tuesday, with Democrats using a loophole in the 60-vote rule to begin considering the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But there is no such loophole to end debate and proceed to a final vote unless Democrats change the rules.

Republicans are determined to filibuster the bill, and Democrats lack the 50 votes needed to create a exception to the filibuster, with Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia firmly opposed to weakening the 60-vote threshold, even though they say they support the two bills.

With those two senators appearing immovable, and with Republicans overwhelmingly opposed to the two bills, the measures are likely to fail. The Senate showdown is less a legislative strategy to pass the bills and more a political strategy to show voters that they fought for voting rights.

The debate on the bills is expected to after after the Senate convenes at noon Tuesday. Senate Democrats also plan to hold an in-person caucus meeting at 5 p.m. ET to discuss the path forward.

On Tuesday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson addressed a letter to all U.S. senators arguing that American democracy “may be standing in its final hour.” To Democrats, he said it is “morally inconsistent to praise voting rights legislation while allowing a procedural rule to tank it.” And to Republicans, he noted the party’s past support for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.

The debate on the measures is expected to stretch into at least Wednesday; once it ends, the Senate will vote on a motion to end debate and move to a final vote on the bills. That motion is not expected to gain the 60 votes needed for approval in the face of a GOP filibuster.

Two days after former President Donald Trump spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election at a rally in Arizona, Democrats and civil rights allies continued their push on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“This is about suppressing the vote. It’s about nullifying the elections,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said near the Capitol, standing beside Martin Luther King III. “It’s just the filibuster in the way. So in a way, if you really truly want to honor Dr. King, don’t dishonor him by using a congressional custom as an excuse for [not] protecting our democracy.”

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said Monday that the Senate should create an exemption to the 60-vote rule, as it has done for legislation to change tax and spending laws.

“Nobody is asking you to give up the filibuster. And I wish they would stop saying that,” he said on MSNBC. “We’re asking you to do for voting rights and constitutional rights the same thing that you’ve done for the budget.”

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris gave MLK Day remarks touting the two voting bills; Biden portrayed the struggle as a historic fight to save U.S. democracy.

Biden and other Democrats have begun to prepare voters for failure, arguing that the original civil rights and voting rights bills, which became law more than a half-century ago, took time to pass.

“On this federal holiday that honors him, it’s not just enough to praise him. We must commit to his unfinished work to deliver jobs and justice, to protect the sacred right to vote,” Biden said in recorded remarks to the annual breakfast honoring King organized by the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the host of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation.”

Harris sought to highlight the fact that along with Sinema and Manchin, all 50 Republicans are standing in the way.

“I’m not going to absolve — nor should any of us absolve — any member of the United States Senate from taking on the responsibility to follow through on the oath that they all took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” she said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said on MSNBC: “If it doesn’t succeed, then we will go on. But I’ll tell you this, our odds are better than the odds that John Lewis or Dr. King faced when they were fighting for change. What President Biden is doing is ultimately trying to defeat Trumpism, not just dealing with the symptom of Trump, but the underlying economic conditions that may have given rise to Trump.”

Frank Thorp V contributed.

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