Sen. Smith assails ‘fundamentally undemocratic’ filibuster

Vows not to give up the fight for voting rights

U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said the Senate will hold a showdown this week on the currently stalled voting rights legislation. “The Democrats are going to hold the Senate floor all day on Wednesday to talk about voting rights, to hold another series of votes to pass voting rights legislation,” Smith told the MSR on Monday.

  Senate Democrats who hold the majority want to merge The Freedom to Vote Act, which overhauls federal elections and campaign finance laws, with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed.

Republicans in the past have voted against the new voting laws, and Smith expects a repeat performance.

“I fear it will be a day of frustration and discouragement because every single member of the Republican caucus in the Senate, 50 people, are expected to vote no on passing these voting rights. And two members of the Democratic caucus, by all accounts, will be voting no on effects to change the rules so that we can pass these laws by simple majority.”

Both Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), despite meetings with fellow Democrats and Democrat President Joe Biden, have said that they are against changing the 60-vote legislative filibuster.   

“It is a moment of great frustration for me,” said Smith on Manchin’s and Sinema’s defection.

 The filibuster, which has long existed in the Senate, allows a senator or group of senators to prolong, delay or block a vote on a bill. The Senate in 1917 adopted a rule that allowed a two-thirds majority to end a filibuster (called “cloture”), and in 1975 the body reduced it to three-fifths, or 60 members needed to end a filibuster. 

The filibuster historically has been used to block such legislation as voting rights, most notably in the early 1960s. 

“This is just fundamentally undemocratic,” explained Smith. “Every city council and state legislature, county board and the U.S. House of Representatives all function at the end of the day, after full debate, by a majority [or] a simple majority deciding whether or not we move forward or not.”

“To see it used in this way again in 2022 is just deeply disheartening,” continued Smith.  “Today in the U.S. Senate you don’t even have to hold the floor, you don’t even have to talk.  You can just say you’re going to block the legislation and then go home for dinner. 

“We have been discussing in the Senate at the very least those who oppose the voting rights legislation or any legislation to talk and to explain why rather than just blocking it and going home for the night,” she added.

“We’ve gotten rid of the filibuster for most federal presidential nominees. We don’t have the filibuster for passing budget and tax laws. Why do we have to have a filibuster? Why do we allow a minority to block progress on voting rights?

“We could carve out voting rights just like we’ve made other carve-outs, [but] my two Democratic members of the caucus, Sens. Manchin and Sinema, have said that they don’t support any of these solutions. That’s why we are stymied.”

The ACLU reported last year that over 400 anti-voter bills have been introduced in 48 states, including strict voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, and mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement. These measures disproportionately affect Blacks and other people of color, students, elderly, and people with disabilities.

When asked, Smith talked about redistricting and gerrymandering, which some states use as a political tool to manipulate the outcome of elections. This is not the case in Minnesota, she said with pride.

“Our districts are drawn fairly by a nonpartisan court rather than by political parties or by a partisan legislature,” said Smith. “What we’re trying to do with the Voting Rights Act is to make it so that people all over the country have the same strong voting protections that we have here in Minnesota.

“For Minnesota voters who are wondering what the election is going to be like in 2022,” she forecasted, “I have great confidence that our elections are going to be fair and that every vote will be counted.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda will be acted on by the Senate this year, Smith predicted. “We have not given up. We will pass a version of Build Back Better, which is going to help lower prescription drug costs, make child care more affordable, [and] make universal preschool available. These are significant pieces of progress” in the same fashion as Biden’s infrastructure bill was passed last year.

“The Infrastructure and Jobs Act is the biggest transformational piece of legislation to improve roads and bridges to repair, and get rid of lead pipes that have been poisoning our communities, especially poor communities and communities of color,” Smith said, adding that the bill includes making broadband affordable and accessible to all.

In spite of the current discord in Washington, “We cannot just wallow in our discouragement,” Smith insisted. “We have to figure out how to move forward.”