Vice President Harris Hints That She Is Discussing Filibuster Changes With Senators

With a major voting bill stalled, the vice president told NPR that she won’t negotiate changes to Senate rules publicly, “but I’m certainly having conversations with folks.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about voting rights, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about voting rights, Wednesday, June 23, 2021, from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington.

With voting rights legislation stalled in the Senate due to Republican opposition, Vice President Harris suggested on Tuesday that she is having conversations about exceptions to the legislative filibuster with senators, while saying in an interview with NPR that she would not negotiate something publicly that the White House has been insisting is up to lawmakers.

“I believe that of all of the issues that the United States Congress can take up, the right to vote is the right that unlocks all the other rights,” Harris said. “And for that reason, it should be one of its highest priorities.”

Pressed on whether she is advocating that senators support a carveout to the filibuster for voting rights proposed by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., Harris said, “I don’t mean this in any offense, but I’m not going to negotiate this way. But I’m certainly having conversations with folks.”

The For The People Act, an expansive bill which includes voting access and campaign finance provisions, received the votes of all Democrats in the Senate in June but was blocked by a Republican filibuster, a legislative procedure that requires 60 votes to advance legislation in the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 between the parties. Many progressives in Congress and outside activists have been calling for the end of the filibuster over voting rights.

Clyburn, a close ally of President Biden, has suggested allowing bills related to the Constitution, including voting legislation, to pass with a simple majority. That could be achieved with the votes of all 50 Democrats and Harris breaking a tie in her role as president of the Senate. Clyburn told Politico he addressed the idea with Harris.

The White House has said Biden does not support ending the filibuster altogether, saying the administration leaves any changes up to the Senate while pointing out that there are also not enough votes to end the filibuster outright, with Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona opposed to such a move.

“Obviously it’s going to require all the Democrats in the Senate to agree with that approach,” Harris said, referring to the exception proposed by Clyburn.

Democrats’ strategy may simply hinge on winning future elections

Biden last month put Harris in charge of the administration’s voting rights efforts, after the White House says she asked to add the issue to her portfolio. She has been meeting with voting rights groups and traveling the country.

Biden traveled to Philadelphia on Tuesday to deliver a speech on voting rights that has been promised for weeks, as progressives have been frustrated that he hadn’t more forcefully used the presidential “bully pulpit” to protect voting rights.

Discussing what the administration can do short of congressional action, Harris pointed primarily to voter registration, education and turnout efforts, as well as voter protection, emphasizing the need for Democrats to win not just in the 2022 midterms, but in state-level elections this year.

When asked if winning elections is the primary strategy for Democrats to overcome Republican voting restrictions, Harris said it was “something much more fundamental.” Harris cited people working multiple jobs and those with disabilities as being threatened by new restrictions on early and absentee voting. Medical conditions typically qualify voters for absentee ballots, but advocates warn that methods of voting that disabled people rely on, including drive-through voting sites, are being targeted in some states.

“I do believe that in many of these states, they are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so that they won’t vote,” the vice president said. “And this is then about attempts to take the power from the people, and we all need to stand and say, ‘We will not allow this to happen on our watch.’ “

The vice president was in Detroit for a voting rights event on Monday, when Texas Democratic lawmakers left their state to block the GOP-led legislature from passing voting restrictions. She plans to meet with those lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this week, according to the White House. Previously, she met with several of those officials after their prior successful attempt to stop a Republican voting bill in Texas, when they traveled to Washington to press passage of Democratic voting legislation that is currently stalled in the Senate.

Harris told NPR that part of her effort is “lifting up folks like the Texas legislature and the voices of those courageous leaders.”

Harris recognizes headwinds to fight voting restrictions in court

Among the administration’s most aggressive moves to protect voting rights is a lawsuit the Department of Justice filed to block Georgia’s new voting law, arguing it targets the rights of Black voters. But a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding voting restrictions in Arizona showed that a conservative judiciary may stand in the way of legal efforts to fight such laws.

Harris acknowledged that the ruling complicates efforts to fight voting restrictions through litigation. “What the Supreme Court has done, it does present a real challenge for us,” she said.

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