On May 25, 1965, 70 U.S. Senators united around the voting rights bill to defeat the filibuster back by 30 segregationists. The following day, the historic Voting Rights of Act of 1965 cleared the Senate by a vote of 77 to 19.
In today’s world, Senate Republicans—almost to a person—are the “Southern” bloc segregationists, only now they control 50 Senate seats and routinely abuse the filibuster to block bills as the minority party.
Those segregationists are being coddled by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have thus far refused to alter the 60-vote filibuster threshold in order to pass critical legislation that would protect voters’ access to the ballot box and help prevent state-level Republican efforts to subvert the will of the people.
On Tuesday morning, in fact, Manchin reiterated that, in his view, any Senate rule changes must be approved by a 67-vote supermajority—meaning the segregationists must approve of a change that would clear the way for passage of voting rights legislation. Anyone here think the segregationists are going to agree to that? Likewise, Sinema reportedly remains opposed to changing the 60-vote threshold.
The difference between Manchin and Sinema is that chronic bloviator Manchin is spouting blatantly incorrect GOP talking points to rationalize the fact that he’s aiding and abetting their obstruction.
On Monday, Manchin said the filibuster had been “the tradition of the Senate here in 232 years now,” adding, “We need to be very cautious what we do … that’s what we’ve always had for 232 years.”
The idea that the Senate filibuster as we know it today has been around since the nation’s founding is just patently false. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, and the founders forcefully rejected the notion that a minority of Senators should be able to block the will of the majority.
In fact, the Framers favored majority rule. As New York magazine points out, James Madison wrote:
In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.
Alexander Hamilton agreed:
If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, … Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.
The truth is, the original concept of filibustering involved Senators actually speaking at length to block the forward progress of a bill. Still, the framers created rules to allow senators to cut off debate when it became obstructionist, according to former Harry Reid Senate aide and author Adam Jentleson. Even the very first Senate had rules to curtail filibustering by a minority from permanently obstructing the progress of the majority.
So the idea that Manchin is somehow protecting a hallowed Senate tradition is sheer fantasy on his part. Instead, Manchin is helping Senate Republicans abuse a process that was never intended to favor the minority and that they are now using to stave off legislation to ensure voters’ access to the ballot box.
Whatever their intentions and pronouncements, Manchin and Sinema are helping the segregationist Republican Party use the filibuster like “a dagger at the throat of democracy,” to borrow a phrase from President Joe Biden. And that’s exactly why President Biden is expected on Tuesday to announce his full-throated endorsement of altering Senate rules in order to clear the way to passage of essential voting rights legislation.
(Editor’s note: Thank you Joe Sudbay for originally tweeting out this 1965 headline that caught my eye.)