Majority Leader Schumer Floor Remarks On The Senate Beginning Debate On Voting Rights Legislation

January 18, 2022

Washington, D.C.   Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) today spoke on the Senate floor regarding the Senate beginning debate today on voting rights legislation. Below are Senator Schumer’s remarks, which can also be viewed here:

The eyes of the nation will be watching what happens this week in the United States Senate.

Just a few days removed from what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday, the Senate has begun the debate on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act— for the first time, the first time, in this Congress.

Democrats have tried for months to hold a voting rights debate on the floor, but we have been blocked each time by Republicans.

We brought commonsense proposals four times on the floor of the Senate, and only once did one Senator—Lisa Murkowski to her credit—agree to even begin debate on voting rights.

On all three other votes, not a single Republican joined us. Every one of them voted to block even a debate on voting rights.

So today we are taking this step by using a message from the House. Now, it’s just a step, but an important step moving forward in that we will finally debate this one issue that is so central to the American people, to our history, and to our democracy.

As we debate these measures, the Senate will confront a critical question: shall the members of this chamber do what is necessary to pass these bills and bring them closer to the President’s desk?

Today we have just taken the first steps that will put everyone – everyone – on the record.

Much has been said over the past few days about the prospects of passing voting rights legislation in this chamber. Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds, especially when virtually every Senate Republican – virtually every Senate Republican – is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote.

But I want to be clear: When this chamber confronts a question this important—one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy—you don’t slide it off the table and say “never mind.”

Win, lose, or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights.

And the public is entitled to know where each Senator stands on an issue as sacrosanct as defending our democracy.

The American people deserve to see their Senators go on record on whether they will support these bills or oppose them. Indeed, that may be the only way to make progress on this issue now: for the public to see where each of us in this chamber stands.

The public deserves to see it. And that is exactly, precisely, what the Senate is going to do this week.

Make no mistake about it, Democrats will continue to fight on this issue until we succeed. And I believe history will vindicate us.

The fight over voting rights is as old as the Republic itself. When the Republic was founded in many states you had to be a white male, protestant property owner to vote. As is obvious by who's in this chamber, we have made progress, inexorable progress, in expanding that franchise. History does not regard those restrictions that occurred early on as worthy.

But we must continue the fight. We have not reached the place where every person can vote easily and openly and honestly. So, we have to keep it up.

I’ve been reading the biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. The number one thing the southern segregationists wanted to take away from the newly-freed slaves was the right to vote.

Segregationists back then knew that if recently-freed black slaves didn't have the right to vote in the South, they'd have no power at all: no power over the laws, over resources, over the future of the country. And that was the number one thing segregationists wanted to prevent, the right of the newly-freed slaves to vote.

It’s why a century later, Dr. King made a direct appeal to Congress for acting on voting rights: “Give us the ballot,” he said in 1957, “and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”

“Give us the ballot,” and all other rights will follow. With the ballot, he argued voters could end the worst of racial segregation. They could elect good men and women to government. They could subdue the dangers of the mob and keep democracy alive.

But the ballot had to come first. The ballot had to come first.

Dr. King might as well have been speaking to us, because across the United States in 2022, ballot access is not being expanded—it’s being repressed. And our democracy is not safe—it is under attack.

·       A year ago, a violent mob—incited by the former president and his Big Lie—attacked this very building in order to reverse the results of a free and fair election. Last week, for the first time, the Department of Justice announced sedition charges against a number of the rioters that were here that day.

·       A year later, at least 19 states have passed 33 new laws that make it harder for people to vote, using the Big Lie, false as it is, as justification. Those states together are home to 55 million Americans, and new laws are certainly coming once the state legislatures return to session this year.

·       And the kind of violence, the threats of violence we saw on January 6th by that insurrectionist mob, is now being threatened increasingly against countless election workers across the country.

·       Just this weekend, the Houston Chronicle reported that, “County officials in urban areas across the state [of Texas] say they've been forced to reject an unprecedented number of mail ballot applications” thanks to the new Republican voter suppression law.

·       And this past Saturday, Donald Trump once again repeated the same conspiracy theories about the 2020 election that have paved the way for voter suppression at the state level.

So unfortunately, the dangers that face our democracy are alive and well—and the laws that suppress the vote at the state level are being enacted on a partisan basis. We’ve seen periods of regression in terms of voting rights and equality and fairness to people of color. We’ve seen regression occur, and it seems to be a period of regression in what the legislators are doing. And fight it, we must.

The Senate must act. We must step in and act. We must do everything to pass voting rights legislation, just as this Chamber has done in the past, just as the Constitution permits us to do.

That is why we will vote this week on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

And if Republicans choose to continue the filibuster, their filibuster of voting rights legislation, we must consider—and vote on—the rule changes that are appropriate and necessary to restore the Senate and make voting rights legislation possible.

As I’ve recounted already, these laws are urgently needed. We must not, we cannot allow another period of that regression, which we’ve seen throughout American history. Here’s what some of the two laws would do:

They would set basic, commonsense standards for all Americans for access to the ballot, as well as restore pre-clearance provisions that were passed by this chamber for decades on a bipartisan basis.

They would establish clear and consistent standards for early voting across the country, and make it easier for voters to access absentee ballots.

They would protect election workers from unlawful intimidation. We are seeing so much of that now. It’s disgraceful, disgraceful.

They would end the toxic practice of partisan gerrymandering.

And they would take new steps to fight the power of dark money corroding our elections.

Senate Democrats repeatedly tried over the last year to bring Republicans to the table to debate these issues.

I will remind my colleagues that this is not the old Republican Party – I would remind the American people how dramatically the Republican Party have regressed. The Republican party used to be one that supported voting rights – Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush worked to renew voting rights bills.

Now, sadly, unfortunately this is Donald Trump’s Republican Party and it’s the one now trying to take away the vote from younger, Black and brown, elderly, minority and low-income voters.

And yet every time we tried to engage our Senate Republican colleagues, they resisted, so we have no choice. We are moving ahead on our own.

Once again, no one denies that the path ahead is an uphill struggle. Republicans have been clear they will entertain no bipartisan compromise on voting rights.

But long odds are no excuse for this chamber to avoid this important issue. Again, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote.

We are going to vote, we are all going to go on the record, and Republicans will have to choose which side they stand on: protecting democracy or offering their implicit endorsement of Donald Trump’s Big Lie.

For months Senate Republicans have come up with excuses and subterfuges to avoid doing what they know is the right thing, just like so many others have come up with similar lame excuses and subterfuges in the past.

But as history shows, doing the right thing will eventually prevail. Justice will flow like mighty waters, as the Prophet Amos has said.

The direction of voting rights in America today is enough to shaken the faith of even the most optimistic champions of democracy. Sometimes it seems like for each step forward, the country takes two steps backward.

But fights like this are not unusual in American history: the story of our country has been a long, arduous march towards expanding the promise of freedom for all Americans. We find ourselves in such a struggle today.

Dr. King had simple, powerful advice for his followers during the moments like this: keep moving. Keep fighting. The road to justice is often painful and full of setback, but we must keep moving.

We must keep moving, he said, against every obstacle and prodigious hilltop and mountain of opposition. Let nothing slow you down. And even after you cross the Red Sea only to find yourself in the desert, just keep moving forward through the wilderness.

“And if you will do that with dignity,” he said, “when the history books are written in the future, the historians will have to look back and say, ‘There lived a great people.’”

We will keep fighting in the same spirit to protect our democracy in this day and age.

If we do that, I have faith that one day the history books will likewise look back on this generation of Americans and conclude, “there lived a great people, too.” 

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