Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday that Senate Democrats should consider eliminating the filibuster to pass an update of the nation’s voting-rights law, allowing the Biden administration to block certain elections changes in Republican-led states.
“The right to vote should never be a partisan endeavor, but if the Senate is unable to meet the moment because of Republican opposition, we are forced to consider all of our options, including the elimination of the filibuster,” Mr. Blumenthal said at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
The Connecticut Democrat’s threat faces long odds of actually happening. Moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia are strongly opposed to changing the Senate’s rules.
But his threat illustrated the heated rhetoric around the issue of the laws being passed around the country, taking such actions as strengthening requirements for voter ID.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution pressed the highly charged attack that the state laws are racist and aimed to keep Black people from voting. They vowed to block them.
“We cannot let these attacks on democracy stand,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
Democrats are pushing for an update to the federal civil-rights voting law that would undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling effectively took away a provision in the Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department to change elections laws or policies.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act pushed by Democrats would restore that requirement, as well as make it easier for advocacy groups to win injunctions to stop new laws from being implemented even in states without a history of discrimination.
President Biden left little doubt of how the Justice Department would act when he repeated the Democrats’ comparison of the election measures to post-Civil War laws aimed at keeping Black people from voting.
“The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. We are going to challenge it vigorously.” Mr. Biden said in a speech Tuesday to civil-rights advocates in Philadelphia.
Mr. Blumenthal said the purpose of the subcommittee’s hearing was “to heed the president’s call to protect democracy.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the subcommittee, noted that Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke would be influential in the Justice Department’s evaluation of state laws.
Ms. Clarke, whom Mr. Cruz called a “radical,” was confirmed by the Senate on a near party-line vote in May. Republicans have pointed to an op-ed she wrote in Newsweek last year that appeared to advocate defunding the police.
Mr. Cruz said Democrats are actually the ones emulating Jim Crow-era laws that suppressed the Black vote. He said those laws passed by Democratic lawmakers, albeit during a different era, were aimed at staying in power.
Blocking laws aimed at preventing cheating by strengthening voter ID requirements has the same purpose, Mr. Cruz said.
“They want to write laws preventing voters from voting Democrats out of power.” Mr. Cruz said.
At least 17 states have enacted new voting laws since the November elections. Democrats have criticized nearly all of them for either making it harder to vote or suppressing turnout of Black and Hispanic voters.
In the audience at the hearing were about ten Democratic Texas state legislators who fled their capitol to try to thwart Republicans from having enough lawmakers present to pass an elections bill in Austin. Democratic legislators flew in two chartered planes to Washington on Tuesday.
“Every law starts at the ballot box,” said Texas Rep. Penny Morales, a Democrat from Houston. “If you look at our histories, we had the suffragettes trying to get the women’s right to vote, and we had the civil-rights movement. We can look at our own history and see that we have really fought hard to have equal access to the elections and fair and open elections. And that’s the basis of our democracy.”
Republicans defended the state laws as crucial to restoring faith in elections, particularly in light of the unproven questions raised by former President Trump about the election having been stolen.
Ken Cuccinelli, chair of the Election Transparency Initiative, a group funded by conservatives, said the state laws are intended to restore trust in the legitimacy of elections.
“Our elections must not only run smoothly, they must be seen as running smoothly,” said Mr. Cuccinelli, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration, during a call with reporters before the hearing.
Mr. Cuccinelli said Mr. Biden’s comparison of the Republican state laws to the racism of the Jim Crow-era was “notable in its fallacy.”
The charge aims to ”throw gasoline on the fire” of racial divisions in the nation, he said.
“Instead of bringing people together, he is driving them apart,” he said.