Top House Democrat Jim Clyburn: 'No way we'd let filibuster deny voting rights'

In an interview with the Guardian, the House majority whip calls for a way around the legislative roadblock

One of the most powerful Democrats in Washington has issued a frank warning to members of his own party, saying they need to find a way to pass major voting rights legislation or they will lose control of Congress.

The comments from Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, came days after the House of Representatives approved a sweeping voting rights bill that would enact some of the most dramatic expansions of the right to vote since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even though Democrats also control the US Senate, the bill is unlikely to pass the chamber because of a procedural rule, the filibuster, that requires 60 votes to advance legislation.

In an interview with the Guardian this week, Clyburn called out two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have opposed getting rid of the filibuster. Republicans across the country are advancing sweeping measures to curtail voting rights and letting expansive voting rights legislation die would harm Democrats, Clyburn said.

“There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 that we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights. That just ain’t gonna happen. That would be catastrophic,” he said. “If Manchin and Sinema enjoy being in the majority, they had better figure out a way to get around the filibuster when it comes to voting and civil rights.”

Clyburn issued that warning ahead of the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day in 1965 when law enforcement officers brutally beat voting rights activists in Selma, Alabama.

Clyburn and other House Democrats have been hoping the early days of Joe Biden’s administration will be marked by passage of a bill named after the late congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights hero who was nearly killed on Bloody Sunday. That measure would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, gutted by the supreme court in 2013, that required places with a history of voting discrimination to get election changes cleared by the federal government before they took effect.

“Here we are talking about the Voting Rights Act he worked so hard for and that’s named in his honor and they’re going to filibuster it to death? That ain’t gonna happen,” Clyburn said.

But the likelihood of that bill becoming law is doubtful under current procedures. Democrats expect Republicans to find a reason to filibuster it after its expected passage through the House of Representatives and consideration in the Senate. Thus Clyburn is calling for some kind of workaround of the filibuster in the current legislative climate, in which the Senate is split 50-50 and use of the legislative obstructing mechanism is all too common.

“I’m not going to say that you must get rid of the filibuster. I would say you would do well to develop a Manchin-Sinema rule on getting around the filibuster as it relates to race and civil rights,” Clyburn said.

Clyburn said he has not discussed changing the filibuster with Biden, who has expressed support for keeping the filibuster in place.

Joe Manchin leaves the Senate chamber last month.
Joe Manchin leaves the Senate chamber last month. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The reality of their slim majority and the regularity of legislation dying through filibuster has caused Democrats to opt to pass the Biden administration’s Covid relief package through a budgetary process called reconciliation, which is not subject to the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold. Clyburn wants to see the same thing with civil rights.

“You can’t filibuster the budget,” Clyburn said. “That’s why we have reconciliation rules. We need to have civil and voting rights reconciliation. That should have had reconciliation permission a long, long time ago.”

He noted: “If the headlines were to read that the John R Lewis Voting Rights Act was filibustered to death it would be catastrophic.”

Clyburn’s comments underscore the difficulty the federal government has in moving any bill because of arcane legislative roadblocks. Broadly popular proposals like a minimum wage increase or a voting rights bill seem dead on arrival. And that has left veteran Senate Democrats skeptical that even a bill protecting Americans’ rights to vote has a chance. First, the filibuster would have to go, and that seems unlikely at the moment.

“The short-term prospects of doing away with the filibuster seem remote just because there aren’t the votes to do that,” said Luke Albee, a former chief of staff to the Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia and Pat Leahy of Vermont. “My gut is it will take six months, eight months, a year of total obstructionism on the Republican side for senators who are skeptical now of getting rid of the filibuster to at least have a more open mind about it.”

Albee also said it was possible that a Voting Rights Act could face strong Republican opposition, despite Clyburn’s confidence.

“There’s no one that hopes it passes more than me but I just worry it’s a toxic environment,” Albee added.


Daniel Strauss in Washington and Sam Levine in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Clyburn offers Manchin history lesson to clear Senate path for Biden reforms
Majority whip faces up to West Virginia senator on filibuster while insisting Georgia voting law is ‘the new Jim Crow’

Richard Luscombe

11, Apr, 2021 @5:48 PM

Article image
‘Putin-style democracy’: how Republicans gerrymander the map
With red states set to gain seats, the GOP is ready to disadvantage Democrats and deliver the US House

Tom McCarthy

11, Apr, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Biden urges Senate to eliminate filibuster in voting rights pitch: ‘I’m tired of being quiet’ – as it happened
President and vice-president speak in Georgia as Schumer says Senate will act on voting rights ‘as soon as tomorrow’

Maanvi Singh (now) and Joan E Greve (earlier)

12, Jan, 2022 @12:12 AM

Article image
Sinema says no to filibuster reform to scuttle Democrats’ voting rights hopes
Arizona senator says she will not support filibuster changes in floor speech condemned by voting rights activists

Sam Levine and Joanna Walters in New York and Joan E Greve in Washington

14, Jan, 2022 @1:24 AM

Article image
‘A ticking timebomb’: Democrats’ push for voting rights law faces tortuous path
Democrats have yet to convince their entire Senate caucus to back the House-passed For the People Act – let alone beat the filibuster

Sam Levine in New York and Daniel Strauss in Washington

27, May, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Biden's no LBJ but he must protect voting rights. What else is the presidency for? | Robert Reich
Republicans want to go back to Jim Crow. Democrats want to protect Black and brown voters. The filibuster simply has to go

Robert Reich

07, Mar, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
House Democrats tell Senate: exempt voting rights bill from filibuster
Filibuster exception would allow Democrats to push through their voting rights reform bill over unanimous Republican opposition

Hugo Lowell in Washington

13, Jul, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Democrat standing in the way of his party’s efforts to protect voting rights
Joe Manchin has publicly signaled that he doesn’t back Democrats’ bill and wants bipartisan support – can senators win him over and move forward?

Sam Levine in New York

27, May, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
Sinema speaks out against filibuster reform after House sends voting rights bill to Senate – as it happened
Biden says ‘I don’t know whether we can get this done’ on voting rights bill – follow all the latest news

Maanvi Singh and Joan E Greve

14, Jan, 2022 @12:53 AM

Article image
Texas Democrats set example by facing down Republican voting rights assault
Legislators who walked out to deny passage of a restrictive voting bill have called on Democrats in Washington to get tough

Sam Levine in New York

02, Jun, 2021 @11:51 AM