October 20, 2021
This afternoon, Senate Republicans blocked a discussion of the Freedom to Vote Act. The measure is the compromise bill put together by seven Democrats and one Independent after Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he could not support the more sweeping For the People Act passed by the House of Representatives. Manchin maintained that a carefully crafted bill could attract the ten Republican senators it needed to break a filibuster.
The Freedom to Vote Act would provide for automatic and same-day voter registration, and it would limit the culling of voters off voter rolls. It would provide for two weeks of early voting and allow anyone to vote by mail. It would make Election Day a holiday and make sure that there is a paper trail for ballots.
At the state level, it would start the process of rolling back the legislation passed by 19 Republican-dominated state legislatures to skew elections hard in their favor. It would prohibit partisan gerrymandering, require transparency in advertising, and protect election officials from the attacks they’ve endured since the 2020 presidential election. It would rebuild the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which oversees our election process but which was gutted under former president Trump.
These reforms are nonpartisan and are an attempt to push back against highly partisan state laws that voting rights experts say will essentially allow Republicans to declare their own outcomes for elections.
Today all Republicans voted no even to a discussion of the bill. All Democrats voted yes, but Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) switched his vote to a no so that, as a member of the majority, he could bring the measure back up later.
What is stopping the measure from coming to the floor for debate is the Senate filibuster rule. That rule is a holdover from the early days of Congress, when there was no way to stop a member from talking, so that anyone eager to make sure something could not pass could just talk until the other members of Congress gave up and moved to another piece of business. The House early on created a mechanism to move from debate to a vote, but the Senate did not.
The filibuster is essentially a refusal to stop talking, although a series of reforms have changed it a bit from its early days. During Woodrow Wilson’s term in the early twentieth century, the Senate adopted the cloture rule, which permitted two thirds of the Senate to vote to stop the debate—but not immediately—and to move on to a vote. That’s where we get the concept that it takes 60 senators to break a filibuster.
In the late twentieth century, the Senate also changed that idea of nonstop talking to a threat to talk, lowering the bar significantly for a minority to stop legislation it doesn’t like. Nowadays, they can just phone it in. It also exempted certain financial bills from the filibuster: those are the things that fall under “budget reconciliation” measures. In the early twenty-first century, the Senate exempted judicial nominations from the filibuster and then, under then–Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Supreme Court nominations. (That’s how Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett got confirmed to the Supreme Court.)
There is discussion now about removing voting rules from the filibuster as well, since we are in a bizarre situation where states that have heavily gerrymandered their districts to benefit Republicans are passing voting restrictions by simple majority votes while the federal government, charged with protecting voting rights, needs a supermajority of the Senate. Since the Republican Senate seats skew heavily toward rural areas, in this case, it is possible for 41 Republican senators, who represent just 21% of the population, to stop voting rights legislation backed by 70% of Americans.
If this is permitted to stand, more and more voters will be silenced, and the nation will fall under a system of minority rule much like that in the American South between about 1876 and 1964. The South always held elections…and the outcome was always preordained.
Meanwhile, the Republicans who are demanding control of our elections are also doubling down on their support for the former president, knowing that their most reliable voters are his loyalists.
Today the House Rules Committee passed a resolution to send the criminal referral for Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who defied a congressional subpoena, to the House floor for a vote. That itself wasn’t much of a surprise—it was procedural—but more surprising was the loud fight Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) put up against the resolution.
Both men are fervent Trump supporters, and Jordan, at least, is himself likely to be a witness before the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. While they conceded that Joe Biden is indeed president, they refused to agree that he won the 2020 election, and they maintained that the investigation into the attack on the counting of the certified ballots on January 6—an attack that came close to pulling down our government—is simply an effort to distract voters from what they consider to be the failures of the Biden administration.
When the Rules Committee took a vote on whether to advance the report to the House floor, all the Democrats voted yes, and the Republicans voted no. The vote was 9–4.
But there was a new feeling in the room. When Gaetz and Jordan started in with their usual attacks to create sound bites, the Democrats pushed back. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a professor of constitutional law, actually said to Gaetz: “You know what, that might work on Steve Bannon’s podcast, but that’s not gonna work in the Rules Committee of the United States House of Representatives.”
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), the committee’s chair, pressed Jordan about his own conversations with Trump that day. Jordan has repeatedly changed his story about what he remembers about talking with the former president that day but has admitted that they spoke more than once. “Of course I talked to the president,” Jordan told McGovern. “I talked to him that day. I’ve been clear about that. I don’t recall the number of times, but it’s not about me. I know you want to make it about that.”
Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the majority leader of the House of Representatives, says the House will vote on the committee's criminal contempt report for Steve Bannon tomorrow. Republican leaders are urging House Republicans to vote no.
A reminder: Bannon flat out refused to answer a congressional subpoena.
Perhaps the Democrats are pushing back on the bullying of the Trump loyalists in part because some who have previously escaped legal jeopardy are now in trouble. In Florida, Gaetz’s former friend Joel Greenberg, who has pleaded guilty to sex trafficking, got an extension on sentencing Monday because he is still providing information to investigators. Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg told the court that Greenberg has made allegations that "take us to some places we did not anticipate."
There is a shorter timeline for Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who was indicted yesterday for lying to the FBI about foreign campaign contributions (which are illegal under U.S. law). Fortenberry uploaded a video to YouTube, titled “I wanted you to hear from me first,” giving his version of events before the indictment dropped. In the video, filmed in a car with his wife and dog, he talked of the money in question but insisted he didn’t know it was from a foreign donor. Unfortunately, it appears there was a phone call between the congressman and the co-host of the fundraiser that brought in the illegal money. That individual was cooperating with the FBI, and in the call, he and Fortenberry discussed the illegal money in clear terms.
At his arraignment hearing today, Fortenberry’s attorney said he would try to get the court to suppress statements made by the congressman "because he was misled.”