The United States Senate did something rare this week: It held an actual debate.
Wednesday’s floor proceedings focused on voting rights legislation and the Senate filibuster, and involved nearly every member in the chamber.
Senators sat in their seats, listening intently to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Many even engaged directly with each other, offering responses to points made on the floor.
It was an unusual sight in what’s often called the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” a widely mocked cliche in the modern Senate, even among senators themselves.
Even though no votes were changed in the end and the legislation failed to pass due to a GOP filibuster, the senators enjoyed what seemed like a fleeting moment to deliberate an issue that had, as of Wednesday, yet to receive its due on the floor.
“That was the most substantive back and forth I have seen in my 13 years in the Senate,” remarked Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) after an extended exchange between Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) over the failure to reauthorize parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Floor debate in the Senate is often theatrical, highly choreographed, and basically fake. Unanimous consent requests and objections to such requests are negotiated and scheduled ahead of time. Few, if any, senators stick around on the floor to listen to their colleagues deliver remarks – especially when it concerns a member of the opposite party. Colloquies do happen occasionally, but they, too, are rare.
When senators do gather on the floor to actually listen to each other speak, it’s usually to show their support for a retiring member, who normally opines on how the Senate used to function and doesn’t anymore, and why they’ve decided to leave .
“I think the problem is we’ve gotten lazy,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) observed at one point.
Filibuster reform advocates have long pushed for solutions to force actual debate on the floor and make it at least a bit more difficult for the minority to sustain a filibuster. The proposed rule change Democrats sought this week involved a “talking filibuster” rule that would also allow the chamber’s voting rights debate to be brought to a close by a simple majority once Republicans ran out of turns to speak. A pair of Democratic holdouts killed that idea.
But there were brief moments on the Senate floor during Wednesday’s debate when the place looked and sounded like the founders intended.
Ossoff and Collins went back and forth over the Maine Republican’s 2006 vote to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and her opposition to advancing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would have restored parts of the law that were thrown out by a 2013 Supreme Court decision .
“I’m not sure that the senator from Georgia was even born in 1965,” Collins said, referring to Ossoff, who at age 33 is the youngest member of the Senate.
Ossoff said he wasn’t questioning Collins’ “motives or integrity,” but was simply pointing out “an inconsistency between voting consistently to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965” in the past and the GOP’s refusal to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement act.
“I don’t know what happened to the good old days.”
– Sen. Joe Manchin
During another notable exchange, two of three of the chamber’s Black senators debated the characterization of restrictive state voting laws as “Jim Crow 2.0,” as many Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have claimed.
Sen. Tim Scott (SC), the sole Black Republican senator and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said he felt “frustration and irritation rising in my soul” when listening to such language. Recalling his family’s history facing racism and segregation, Scott said the “blatantly false” narrative was offensive “to millions of Americans who fought and died for the right to vote.”
A fired-up Cory Booker (DN.J.) stood up afterward, acknowledging “overbold” language around the issue, but pushing back on the notion that GOP-led states aren’t seeking to restrict access to voting for minority communities.
“Don’t lecture me about Jim Crow. I know this is not 1965,” Booker, who is also Black, said in a floor speech. “That’s what makes me so outraged. It’s 2022 and they’re blatantly removing more polling places from the counties where Black and Latinos are overrepresented.”
Later in the evening, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), a vocal voting rights advocate and one of the newest members in the chamber, commented on the day’s events.
“Let me say that I am glad that we are finally having a debate on the Senate floor,” said Warnock, who is Black. “Imagine that. The Senate—what is that, the most important deliberative body—is actually having a debate.”
A debate is all Democrats could muster under the current rules, but one they felt necessary in order to put all members on the record, despite the lack of support for a one-time rules change to pass the legislation. It animated their base and perhaps laid the groundwork for possible future rules changes.
But the push also inflamed the divisions within their party and risked angering the two wayward Democrats ― Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona ― whose votes they still need to pass legislation and confirm nominees. At one point Wednesday evening, Manchin was spotted dining with Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, called the proceedings “in all likelihood the most important day in the history of the Senate as an institution.” He was referring, of course, to the bipartisan vote against weakening the filibuster.
If there is one thing most senators agreed on, it’s that the Senate doesn’t function as it used to.
“I don’t know what happened to the good old days, but I can’t tell you they’re here now,” Manchin, an ardent filibuster defender, said on the floor as he lamented his party’s effort to eliminate it.
Placing a hand on his heart, Manchin then turned to his fellow Democrats and asked them to respect his opinion. Afterwards, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) accused him of “undermining” Biden.
A dour-sounding Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a Republican moderate known for crossing the aisle, also expressed desperation at the state of the institution in an interview with HuffPost.
“Maybe what has to happen,” Murkowski suggested, “is we just have to completely go off the edge, the train has to go off the cliff before you get the rescue crew down below trying to salvage things. I don’t know.”