Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz at a press conference on border security at the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission on Jan. 10, 2019. The senators accompanied President Donald Trump on his trip to the southern border earlier in the day. (Courtney Sacco/Caller-Times via REUTERS)
By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune
WASHINGTON — Texas’ U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, are on track next week to help deliver what could be the final blow to Democratic hopes of passing a federal voting bill that would shut down many of the voter restrictions the Texas Legislature passed into law last year.
The U.S. Senate is expected to soon address a House-passed bill that would reinstate parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and push back against sweeping voting changes passed by Republican-controlled legislatures across the country. The bill is widely expected to fail, further damaging any vestige of bipartisan comity between Capitol Hill and the White House.
“The truth is this is not about voting rights,” Cornyn said in a Tuesday appearance on Fox News. “This is about a partisan political power grab, and they are just trying to dress it up and sell it as something else. I just don’t think the American people are buying it.”
A Texas bill passed in the Legislature over the summer sparked a push by Congressional Democrats to expand voter access nationwide. The Texas legislation earned national attention when state Democratic House members left the state for a monthlong stay in Washington, D.C., to break quorum during a summer special session. The bill, which tightens election laws in Texas and prevents local entities such as cities and counties from expanding voting options, eventually passed in August.
Texas Republicans — and Republican state legislators elsewhere — defended the law as a necessary tool to protect “election integrity,” an echo of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded insistence that the 2020 election was rigged. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas or elsewhere, and courts across the country — including the U.S. Supreme Court — threw out nearly all of the cases his legal team pursued in 2020 to overturn the election results.
Cruz and Cornyn both actively opposed federal voting rights legislation for months, but their rhetoric escalated over the past week, particularly after President Joe Biden advocated for the bill in a cutting speech in Atlanta on Tuesday.
“Democrats have decided that voter fraud benefits them politically,” Cruz said at a Tuesday news conference. “And they’re willing to go to any length to tear down the reasonable, commonsense protections that protect the integrity of our elections.”
Cornyn accused Democrats on the Senate floor Monday of wanting “to fix a system that is not broken.”
The Democratic legislation at hand passed the House in a party line vote on Thursday, and Senate Democratic leaders are expected to put the bill on the floor in the coming days. Known as Freedom to Vote: The John Lewis Act, the legislation is named for the late civil rights leader and member of Congress who died in 2020.
The bill includes text from an earlier version of the legislation that didn’t pass the Senate, which would bolster provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court gutted in 2013. That included bringing back “preclearance,” a process in which states like Texas, with track records of discriminating against voters of color, must get approval on voting rule changes from the Justice Department.
The new section of the bill includes features to increase online and automatic voter registration, requires states to allow 14 days of early voting and prohibits states from restricting mail-in voting. It makes Election Day a federal holiday, aims to protect election officials from interference, delivers new money to states for election security, addresses campaign finance and seeks to address how Congressional districts are drawn.
These priorities are a slimmed-down version of a more expansive bill that passed the House last year. Democrats made those changes in order to win the support of a holdout, Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Once again, a debate about whether to remove the filibuster in order to pass the Democrat’s priority legislation has taken hold. The filibuster is a legislative tactic of the minority party of the Senate that requires 60 senators to move forward on a bill.
“The House has acted again and again to protect and expand voting rights, and now with the passage of this bill, I again call on the Senate to find a way to get this done,” said U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, a former voting rights attorney who has served as a key strategist on the Democratic-controlled House side.
“This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but sadly, without any Republican support in the Senate, Democrats have no choice but to act alone,” he added. “We cannot allow the filibuster to get in the way of the work we need to do to protect our democracy.”
At the center of the latest vote is the filibuster.
Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years before becoming vice president in 2009, lit a match in an Atlanta speech on Tuesday. Noting that a 2006 reauthorization of the original Voting Rights Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, Biden implicitly critiqued senior senators like Cornyn, who voted for that bill almost 16 years ago.
“In 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate with votes from 16 current sitting Republicans in this United States Senate,” Biden said. “Sixteen of them voted to extend it.”
Then he compared those who would oppose this bill to southerners who fought abolition of slavery and obstructed the repeal of Jim Crow laws.
“I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” he asked.
“At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be … on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Cruz responded, calling it a “vicious, partisan, divisive, hateful speech.”
Cornyn on Fox News mocked Biden because several local Black leaders declined to attend Biden’s remarks out of unhappiness with his progress on passing a voting bill.
“I’m a little embarrassed for him because he doesn’t even have members of his own political party on board in the Senate, much less those who boycotted his appearance in Atlanta, people like Stacey Abrams,” he said.
He suggested the president was being hypocritical for supporting the protection of the filibuster when he was in the Senate.
“This is diametrically opposed to the position that the president took when he was in the Senate, as he was for many, many years, and when the shoe was on the other foot,” Cornyn said.
There is currently a 50-50 tie between the parties. Democrats hoped they could convince two senators within their caucus, Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, to carve out a rule change on this bill that would eliminate Republicans’ ability to stymie the bill with the 60-vote threshold.
Those hopes likely died on Thursday when Sinema went to the Senate floor to reinforce her support for a filibuster.
As of the end of the week, Democrats are determined to move forward anyway in order to put senators on the record. The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation early next week.
Editor’s Note: “John Cornyn and Ted Cruz join united Republican opposition to federal voting rights bills” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.