KLOBUCHAR: “Arguing that the Senate rules are more important than the right to vote ignores the very history of this nation.”
WASHINGTON – Today on the Senate Floor, U.S. Senator Klobuchar, Chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee with oversight of federal elections and campaign finance law, reiterated her commitment to updating Senate rules to pass federal voting rights legislation and protect our democracy.
“Does it really seem like the Framers of our Constitution envisioned a system where a minority of senators could stand in the way of legislation and stop it altogether – stop the vote, stop the consideration, throw a wrench into the process, take it off the rails, and then just walk out the door and go home? That is not what they envisioned,” Klobuchar said before outlining several times in our nation’s history when Senate rules have been changed.
“History plainly allows for just the type of action that our democracy now demands,” she concluded.
I first want to thank my colleague from the state of Washington, Senator Cantwell, for her passion for the people and the rights of people to vote, and her willingness to actually go through the details of the groups outside of this Congress that feel so strongly about this, including businesses, as pointed out, who understand that you can’t do business overseas – having just come back from Ukraine, that I just arrived an hour ago – and uphold democracies overseas, if we are allowing our democracy to go to shambles by allowing voter suppression laws to pass as they have in numerous states across the country.
Just this week we marked the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and today we are considering legislation that goes to the very heartbeat of the democracy, the freedom to vote, that so many have fought and died for. We’re here because a flood of state laws to roll back voting has surged up since the 2020 elections. And in the 2020 elections, in the middle of a pandemic, Americans cast a ballot, more of them cast a ballot, than ever before. They were willing to take those risks, and the laws were changed in red states and blue states and purple states to allow them to do that. But now what do we see? A rollback.
A rollback in the Presiding Officer's great state of Wisconsin. We see rollbacks attempted across the nation, in places like Montana, same-day registration was in place for 15 years, 8,000 people took avail of it in the last election to either change their address or register that way. So then what happens? The Republican legislature in Montana, “why don't we get rid of something we've had in place for 15 years? Why don't we do that?” Guess what that creates, my friends? Maximum confusion and ultimate voter suppression.
With that core freedom of voting now at stake, it is on us to stand up, to take up the torch that Dr. King and so many brave Americans carried decades ago and act to preserve the foundational right of our democracy. And while that may sound like an ambitious task, it is one within our reach. By passing the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act we can meet these challenges and turn back the tide.
Today I want to address a topic that has loomed large over this historic debate, and that has to do with the very rules of this chamber. This week every member of the Senate will have a chance to cast a vote that will determine if this is a legislative body that will rise to meet a test. The test is participation and voting. The test is actually being able to take on the issues of our day.
It won't be the first time. Indeed four times already this Congress, our Republican colleagues have blocked us from even considering legislation to protect the freedom to vote. But we’re here again this week. We’re here because to quote Ella Baker, a granddaughter of slaves from Virginia who worked alongside some of the great leaders of the civil rights movement, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.” So while much has been made of our colleagues who have not committed to join us in this effort to change the Senate rules, we must remain steadfast in the truth that the right to vote is non-negotiable. We must forge ahead.
I want to start by responding to some of the points that have been raised as reasons not to move forward with legislation at this watershed moment, as reasons not to do what it takes to come to protecting the most sacred of rights, the right to vote. Some have argued that allowing voting rights legislation to pass the Senate without clearing a 60 vote threshold would be a mistake that would open the door to somehow leading it to wild swings in federal policy. I’m trying to imagine this place ever involved in such a thing, given how slowly we go and how many people – understandably – want to make sure we’re careful in how we pass laws, but that’s one of the things that has been raised for why we need a 60 vote threshold, which of course is not in the Constitution. The word filibuster or cloture – not in the Constitution. And in fact legislatures across this land, some of whom do very good things, do not use a 60-vote threshold, in fact democracies across the world do not use a 60-vote threshold.
The truth is this: we have tried for months to persuade our Republican colleagues to join us in supporting legislation, to work with us, to debate it. But what they do is they throw a wrench into the process and then basically walk out that door and go home. We don’t have that debate that allows us to have amendments and allows us to ultimately have a vote on the bill. It is cut off from a vote.
When you look at the past when it comes to voting rights, it has been bipartisan not even that long ago. But this time -- this time even reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, something that has been the law of the land, supported on a bipartisan basis, as the President of the United States pointed out when he was in Atlanta. This time, no. Only one Republican, Senator Murkowski of Alaska, was willing even to allow the John Lewis bill to come up for a vote. But if our colleagues across the aisle will not work with us, it does not mean – it cannot mean – that we should simply give up.
A simple look at history makes that clear. As Representative Clyburn has noted in recent weeks, there have been moments in our history when this most fundamental of rights has not been extended or defended on a bipartisan basis. That’s a right to have these bills come up. He pointed to the 15th Amendment, that as he said, “was a single-party vote that gave Black people the right to vote.” And that fact does not make the 15th Amendment any less legitimate.
I would also say to my colleagues that the real threat facing our country isn’t too much legislation, it’s the gridlock and the stalemate in which this chamber is stuck. A number of us were just in Ukraine, standing up for democracy, standing up for the right of people across the world to be able to debate issues and make decisions on the most pressing issues of this time. And now we are back here in this chamber and we have to have that opportunity as well.
This misses another key point in the arguments made against changing the rules. When politicians actually have to vote on stuff, voters can hold them accountable for these votes. We know that the policies in the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act enjoy strong support among the American people. They have been adopted in red and blue and purple states. Look at places like Utah. For years, mail-in balloting, yet in other states, sadly, it’s really hard to do. In other states, you have to get a notary just to get an application, or you have to get a witness just to get an application, even if you have COVID and you’re in a hospital. Yet, in many states – red, blue, purple – this is in place. We believe, those of us who support the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, that in keeping with the Constitution that says that Congress can make or alter the laws regarding federal elections, that this should be the law of the land. It is constitutionally supported, and Americans, no matter what their zip code, should have the right to vote in a safe way that’s best for them.
Arguing that the Senate rules are more important than the right to vote ignores the very history of this nation. As Senator Angus King has reminded us, in 1890, Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a bill to ensure African Americans in the South were not disenfranchised. The bill passed the House but was blocked by the Senate with a filibuster. Lodge argued that the Senate should get rid of the filibuster, saying, “To vote without debating is perilous, but to debate and never vote is imbecile.” I think that kind of says it all quite directly. The Senate chose not to change its rules, and due to repeated filibusters in the years that followed, Congress couldn’t pass legislation to enforce the 15th Amendment until nearly 70 years later through the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
We’ve also heard that allowing one party to insist on virtually unlimited debates – you can’t vote – is an essential part of the Senate. But experts from both parties have said this isn’t true. As Marty Gold, the respected expert on the Senate rules who worked for Republican leader Howard Baker and was Staff Director of the Senate Rules Committee has written, the possibility that a minority of Senators could hold unlimited debate on a topic against the majority's will was unknown in the first Senate. Those are his words.
Others have argued that requiring a supermajority, as this filibuster does now, to pass legislation was an intentional effort to foster compromise. But again, the historical record simply doesn’t back that up. The Constitutional Convention heard but did not adopt a proposal to require a supermajority for legislation. The framers explicitly decided to reserve supermajority requirements for things like constitutional amendments, treaties, and impeachment. To quote one of them, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “a system where the minority overpowers the majority would be contrary to the common practice of assemblies in all countries and ages.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison, “It is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail.” James Madison was a fierce defender of minority rights but in 1834 even he wrote, “The vital principle of Republican government is the will of the majority.”
Listening to those words, does it really seem like the framers of our Constitution envisioned a system where a minority of senators could stand in the way of legislation and stop it altogether – stop the vote, stop the consideration, throw a wrench into a process, take it off the rails and then just walk out the door and go home? That is not what they envisioned.
I also want to be clear: updating the Senate rules to meet the needs of this moment isn’t some radical break with past precedent. Throughout the Senate’s history, when faced with unrelenting obstruction from the minority, the majority has in fact changed the Senate rules to allow matters to conclude, to be voted on. Not to hang in a dance of perpetuity. In fact since it was first established in 1917, the cloture rule has been revised multiple times to make it easier to end debate and force a vote. For friends watching at home, this is what it means: a cloture motion is what allows senators to bring something to a vote, and under the current rules, it takes 60 senators to open debate to pass a bill. Here are some examples of how the cloture rule has changed over time. In 1949, cloture was extended to cover all issues pending before the Senate, not just bills. In 1975, the vote threshold for cloture was reduced to three-fifths of all senators. In 1979, total post cloture debate was limited to 100 hours, and then it was limited again to 30 hours in 1986. And in the past decade, the cloture rule has been further reduced for various kinds of nominees, most recently by our Republican colleagues across the aisle. This isn’t something from 100 years ago. This isn’t something from before we had cars and people were arriving here on horseback. This just happened.
In addition to changes to the cloture rule itself, the Senate has put in place exceptions to the rule. In fact, over time the Senate has established over 160 processes and statutes that allow a final vote without requiring 60 votes for cloture to end debate. In other words, you get to a vote without the 60 votes. As a result, we expedited procedures, including – get this – reconciliation to pass spending and tax legislation, the Congressional Review Act to block regulations, disapproval of arms sales. I guess someone decided that was okay to do for less than 60 votes. Even approving compensation plans for commercial space accidents doesn't require 60 votes, my friends. But while the 60 vote threshold was carved up 160 times so senators could pass things like tax cuts under President Trump, block regulations and confirm some Supreme Court justices, when it comes to voting rights, we are told that traditions and comity means that we should hug it tight, this old rule, throw senators under the Senate desks and go home. It is no wonder that our Republican colleagues’ support for the 60 vote threshold rings hollow when their priorities, such as tax cuts, such as a Supreme Court nominee, can be passed with a simple majority. Time and time again, the majority in the U.S. Senate has had to change the rules to help pass major legislation. As Senator Merkley has noted time and time again, bills we have passed after the majority has modified the rules include the National Gas Policy Act in 1977, funding for the Selective Service System in 1980, deficit reduction legislation in 1985, a moratorium on listing new species under the Endangered Species Act in 1995, and the change made by the majority in 1996 to the reconciliation process which paved the way for the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and the 2017 Trump tax cuts.
When circumstances change, senators have changed the rules time and time again. All of this history clearly shows that the Senate rules are not chiseled in stone. That's probably a good thing. Because we get that the people out there need us to do our jobs and maybe that is more important than some archaic rule that someone is now abusing. They are not an outside force, these rules, over which we have no control. They are our rules, the senators’ rules, yes, but also the people’s rules, written and changed over the years by senators representing the people of this country, just like the ones sitting in this chamber today.
As we move forward, I want to make clear that I agree with my colleagues who have said we must keep the history of this institution in mind. By the way, I just gave you the history of this institution, 160 carve-outs, time and time again, when the rules have changed. That is the true history of this institution.
History plainly allows for just the type of action that our democracy now demands. If we acknowledge the stakes when it comes to protecting the freedom to vote, the cornerstone of our democracy, and we acknowledge the history of the rules of this body, I am left with the simple conclusion: we must update, change, and improve our rules to restore the Senate and meet the moment of our times.
Our nation was founded on the ideals of democracy and we've seen for ourselves in this building how we can't afford to take that for granted. I certainly saw that this weekend in Ukraine. We cannot afford to take any democracy for granted. The world is watching us. Watching to see how America is taking on the challenges of the 21st Century, including the threats to our democracy. Around the globe there are those who see weakness as an opportunity. They see weakness in our democracy as an opportunity for them. They who are hoping that gridlock and paralysis are the defining features of America. They are out there, and you can imagine what world leaders I’m thinking of right now. To put it simply, if we’re going to effectively compete with the rest of the world, we need a Senate that can do more than just respond to crises. We are pretty good at that – tornados, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, financial crises, pandemics, okay, we respond to that. But what about the long-term challenges like slowly but surely eroding this democracy with voter suppression. There is so much at stake here. We must get this done. Thank you, Madam President. I yield the floor.
# # #