Democrats’ sweeping attempt to overhaul the nation’s election system fell to a whimpering defeat Tuesday, dealing President Biden his first major legislative loss.
While the immediate cause of death was a Republican-led filibuster, the legislation, which sprawled across more than 800 pages of text and would have overridden state election laws across the country, collapsed under the weight of its own liberal tilt.
All 50 Republicans voted to derail the bill, leaving it 10 votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster.
Democrats labeled the bill the “For the People Act,” but the strictly partisan debate belied that ambitious name. Each party accused the other of trying to rig elections in their favor.
Democratic leaders promised liberal activists a concrete chance to rebuke former President Donald Trump for his unproven claims that the election last year was “stolen” from him.
Party leaders also billed it as a way to overturn election laws adopted this year in Republican-led states. Critics said the laws would make it harder for minorities to vote, hurting the chances of Democratic candidates.
The bill’s demise was a devastating loss for the left.
“Voter suppression has become the official platform of the Republican Party,” an angry Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said moments after the vote. He vowed that Democrats will continue to try to undo voting laws enacted by states.
“We will not let it go. We will not let it die,” he said.
Republicans said there was never a chance of passage in a 50-50 Senate, and Democrats didn’t make any serious overtures to work with Republicans on a bipartisan bill. Instead, Democrats’ goal was “a transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in America permanently in their favor,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, one of the chamber’s centrist Republicans, said the partisan bloviating over the bill revealed what the legislation was all about.
“This is a bill that was introduced to enhance partisan messaging, not to enhance participation in our elections, as the over-the-top rhetoric around this bill highlights,” she said in a floor speech before the vote.
Ms. Collins and other Republicans blasted the idea of Congress overruling states’ ability to decide how to conduct their elections and which anti-fraud measures to adopt, such as strict voter ID requirements.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another centrist Republican, said the country’s governing institutions are at “a very weak moment” and it’s all the more reason why the hard-left approach was wrong.
“Americans need to have faith in our institutions. They need to know that our elections are fair, that they are easy and accessible for all. And we can’t instill that trust with a wholly partisan effort,” she said.
The bill would have been a complete overhaul of how campaigns are run and elections conducted, setting standards that track with the laws in the most liberal states.
Voters would be ushered into automatic registration if they use a government service, and states would have to adopt same-day registration. Voting by mail was a required option, and ballots could have been counted even if they arrived after Election Day. The legislation also would limit states’ efforts to purge names from voter rolls.
It did not ban voter ID laws but imposed a national workaround for those without ID that is more lenient than laws in most of the 30 states that require identification. It also created an optional government-funded system for congressional campaigns.
Democrats were working on last-minute changes to try to keep their lawmakers unified.
A version of the bill passed the House earlier this year, and some Democrats pondered using the “nuclear option” to change the Senate’s rules and defang the filibuster to get the bill passed and onto Mr. Biden’s desk.
But several Senate Democrats have said they won’t go along with that plan, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.
Mr. Manchin is the lone Senate Democrat not to have co-sponsored the elections bill, and he was demanding last-minute changes. Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, he announced that he would at least support bringing the bill to the floor for debate.
“Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues refused to allow debate of this legislation despite the reasonable changes made to focus the bill on the core issues facing our democracy,” he said.
It was not clear what changes he won.
Liberal activists said Mr. Biden should have done more to back the bill, including using the power of the White House to raise its visibility and rally public pressure.
“Where is the president?” Ezra Levin, founder of the liberal activist group Indivisible, tweeted Monday. He said Mr. Biden did not twist arms in the way President Obama did to pass the Affordable Care Act or President Clinton did to get the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress.
“Is saving democracy a priority for this Administration or not?” Mr. Levin tweeted.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Mr. Biden had been working to win Mr. Manchin’s support and has been public in his backing for voting rights, including at an event commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre.
“That’s hardly being silent. That’s hardly being on the back bench,” she said.
She also promised a full-court press is coming from Mr. Biden, calling voting rights “the fight of his presidency.”
“This fight is not over. Whatever the outcome today, it will continue,” she told reporters before the vote.
Mr. McConnell said this week that Democrats intended for the bill to fail as part of a plan to eliminate the filibuster, a defining feature of the Senate that allows the minority party exceptional say in which legislation passes.
Democrats, who flexed the filibuster repeatedly when Mr. Trump was in office, now call it a “racist” relic that must be expunged.
Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Tuesday’s vote meant the bill never even got to the chamber floor for amendments and debate.
“We just want to debate these things, and they won’t even do that because they’re so afraid,” Mr. Schumer said. “It’s not about election integrity. It’s about voter suppression.”
He said the new laws in Republican-led states that limit some of the expansive opportunities for voter registration and casting ballots would disproportionately affect minority voters.
“They want to sweep it under the rug because they don’t want Americans to even hear about it,” he said.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said forcing a vote on the bill accomplished several goals for Democrats, including allowing Mr. Schumer to tell the left that he tried.
Mr. O’Connell said that raising left-wing issues time and again will make the ideas in the bill seem less radical to voters. He said Democrats likely will use the vote to accuse Republicans of racism.
“If they don’t get their way, they’ll use blame and shame,” he said.
That was the approach Mr. Schumer took Tuesday morning. He said Republicans who derailed the bill were siding with Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud.
“There is a rot at the center of the modern Republican Party. Donald Trump’s lies spread like a cancer,” Mr. Schumer said.