Protecting the Right to Vote and Restoring the Senate

Let me say what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to make this speech in front of you, Mr. President, the fifth-longest serving senator in the history of the United States Senate — somebody who has been in the Senate for 46 years.

I was eleven, Mr. President, when you came to the United States Senate, and I’m not a young man anymore. I’m 57 years old.

(Interjection) Somebody said “you’re young.” Only in the United States Senate would that be true.

But I know the presiding officer who is the chair of the important Appropriations Committee is retiring this year. And I was sitting here as I was getting ready to speak, thinking that you have seen it all, Mr. President. You have seen it all. Unlike almost anybody else in this chamber, you’ve actually seen a functioning United States Senate.

You’ve seen a Senate where it was filled — the floor was filled with people having a debate — here filibusters actually had to happen out in public, not in secret in senators’ offices; where people weren’t spending 80percent percent of their time in call rooms fundraising instead of being out here on the floor doing the American people’s business.

Senators, as we’ll see, actually passed important pieces of legislation that made a difference to the American people and made our country more competitive. Made us stronger. And you’re one of the last people here that saw a Senate that worked like that.

The Republican Leader has been here long enough to see a Senate that worked like that. And you were here, I’m sure — I know you were, Mr. President — in 2006 when you were passing the Voting Rights Act here with 98 votes — 98–0 the Voting Rights Act passed in 1996.

The Republican Leader of the Senate then, the senior senator from Kentucky, Senator McConnell, voted for that bill. It wasn’t even close from his perspective. I have a number of quotes from him, but one was, “The Voting Rights Act has proved to be a success for America” and has “brought about greater justice for all.” Amen, Leader McConnell. Taking that principled position in 2006.

And it was part of an honorable tradition that the Republican Party has had in this country going back, really, to Abraham Lincoln and the votes that were taken here to put Reconstruction in place and to fight the Redeemers. And it was true in 1965 when they passed the Voting Rights Act by 77–19 on this floor. Lyndon Johnson could not have done that without Everett Dirksen, the Republican Leader who was for it.

As you know, Mr. President, because you saw it — you probably were there — four Republican presidents, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George W. Bush all signed versions of the Voting Rights Act. They showed the country every time they did it that there’s nothing partisan about voting rights.

As Senator McConnell said, “Our country will and must continue its progress toward a society in which every person of every background can realize the American Dream. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we are reaffirming that dream.”

He was right back then, Mr. President, when he said that, but today he’s leading the blockade. There are 16 Republican senators here who voted for the Voting Rights Act back then in 2006 and today they’re all part of this blockade.

What’s changed? What’s changed? One of the things that changed was the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act by getting rid of preclearance for states that historically discriminated against African American people, among others. But you know what’s interesting about that, Mr. President, is that the Supreme Court said in that decision Congress can fix this problem.

We have a constitutional problem, but Congress can fix this problem. That’s exactly the same thing they said, by the way, when they wrote that horrendous decision in Citizens United. They said Congress can fix this problem. But they may not have detected the paralysis that now exists.

Not in Leahy’s Senate when you got here, Mr. President, but in Mitch McConnell’s Senate today, in the modern day Senate, where people are willing to let a decision like Shelby just lie, not address it, where people are willing to accept a decision like Citizens United that says we’re going to let billionaires buy elections in this country, instead of favoring people’s right to vote.

And we the Congress won’t do anything about it, even when the Supreme Court tells us we can do something about it. I think it’s worth quoting the notorious RBG in her dissent in that case, in the Shelby case, when she said that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.” She was a hundred percent right.

State after state after state started to adopt restrictive voting statutes. Last July, the Supreme Court issued another opinion that makes it harder to challenge state laws that disproportionately hurt certain voters.

By the way, none of this could have come at a worst time, because we have a former president traversing the United States of America, perpetrating the Big Lie that he didn’t lose the election, that the election was stolen from him, that Joe Biden is not the legitimate President of the United States.

And there are politicians, I’m sad to say, elected leaders all over this nation that are — including in this chamber — that are parroting that Big Lie when they know that it’s a lie. When they know that it’s false. Who are unwilling, as Mitt Romney said, to respect their own voters enough that they actually tell them the truth.

And in every state except one — Senator Leahy it’s your state, Vermont — in every state except yours, people are introducing legislation to take away the vote of other people. Five hundred such bills.

Arizona has adopted changes that would purge up to 150,000 voters from the rolls.

Montana has gotten rid of same-day voter registration to make it harder for students.

Texas is down to one drop box per county. In Harris County, a county — I’m sorry to say to my friend Sheldon Whitehouse — that’s actually larger than Rhode Island, that means — there’s a drop box for 2.5 million voters.

(Interjection.) I’m glad to use Rhode Island as a unit of measure. It’s also smaller than a number of Colorado counties but it has its charms. It has water, which we don’t have in the state of Colorado.

I’m here with my colleague from Colorado, who when he was governor did a lot to make sure people had the right to vote in our state. In contrast to Houston, where there’s one drop box, in my hometown of Denver — where there are 500,000 registered voters — we have forty drop boxes in Denver. We’re a lot smaller. We got forty times the number of drop boxes that they have in Houston.

After Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State refused to buckle to President Trump’s demand to find somehow another 11,000 votes — you remember the phone call. I’m not making it up, you heard it with your own ears. He called him up and he said find 11,000 votes. And the guy said no, I’m not going to do that. And now, the legislature has removed him from the State Election Board.

So this isn’t just about making it harder for people to vote. Although, it is making it harder for people to vote. This is shoring up the soft spots that prevented Donald Trump from being able to assert credibly that somehow the election had been stolen from him.

So, one year after January 6 happened, one year after this Capitol was invaded, one year after there was a guy in horns standing up on the top of that gallery behind me, the Majority Leader who once came to this floor to proclaim the importance of the Voting Rights Act is saying that this is all a fake panic. That’s the language he used today.

Boy, given what we’re seeing in this country, if we ever needed him to summon the principle that he articulated or espoused in 2006, Mr. President when you were here, it’s now. It’s now.

That’s an important principle to defend. So, he comes to the floor today and says I’m going to defend the Senate. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m here to defend the Senate.

Let me say something that might offend you, Mr. President, and I don’t mean to offend you, and I apologize if it offends you, but no one in America knows what the cloture rule is. No one. No one in America — my mom doesn’t know what the cloture rule is, and she’s a pretty close watcher of the Senate. No one knows what the cloture rule is. No one in America knows, I would assert, what the filibuster is.

But let me tell you what it is. Not what it says, what it is. It is a rule that was created to let 60 senators cut off debate so 51 senators could make a decision that has been warped into a rule that allows 41 senators to stop any debate and prevent the Senate from ever having a vote. That is what the cloture rule is. That’s not what it says, but that is what it is, which is why every time you turn your television set on at home you see a crawl at the bottom of your screen that says quorum call. And you can’t find a United States senator anywhere, because they’re probably back in a phone booth making fundraising phone calls.

Until this century, there was virtually any filibuster used — by the way, I should say how much I appreciate Senator Thune coming to the floor here today and saying that President Trump lost the election. I appreciate it. I really do. And he’s an honorable person.

But it’s important to know that one place the filibuster does not exist is in the United States Constitution. And for most of the country’s history, we never had the filibuster. It was almost never used until the modern era.

And when I got here in President Obama’s first term, the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, used the filibuster a record number of times. He filibustered everything in his attempt to first make Barack Obama a one-term president, then basically bring down his presidency. He came out to the floor the other day, he said, “sometimes the effect of the filibuster is to block bills outright.” Sometimes? Sometimes? It happens all the time. This is why we never do anything. This is why we can’t make decisions. This is why we can’t even have debates. And the American people have no idea whom to blame.

They don’t know because no one in America knows what the cloture rule is. And when they elect a majority and expect things to get done, they don’t get done.

Senator McConnell argues that the filibuster “gives all kinds of citizens in all kinds of states a meaningful voice in nearly everything we do.” And we’ve heard that over and over again today — the voice that somehow we’re shutting out. I haven’t met anybody who thinks that their voice is meaningfully represented in the United States Senate instead of special interests or the most powerful people. Nobody. And it’s because we can’t have a debate on anything they care about.

Take background checks: 84percent of voters, including 77percent of Republicans, support them. We can’t even have a debate on the floor.

Let Medicare negotiate drug prices on behalf of people, [81percent] of the American people support that. We can’t even have a debate here.

74percent of people support the reamers… and we can’t get a vote on that.

The Freedom to Vote Act: 70percent of all voters, including 54percent of Republicans, support it.

All of them have been blocked by Senator McConnell and his abuse of the Senate rules. Not some great, venerable tradition of the United States Senate, but his modern-day abuse, his caricature of the Senate rules.

And it has created a minority veto, something that the Founders of this country would never, ever, in a million years have imagined that this place would be perverted into. They knew the trouble that would cause, because they had the Articles of Confederation, which is what they were trying to replace at the Constitutional Convention.

I’m coming to an end, so I apologize to my colleagues. But let me just say, none of this has stopped us from cutting taxes by $8 trillion, mostly for the wealthiest people in this country. And none of this has stopped us from putting lots of right-wing judges on the court when Donald Trump was here, because you can do those things with 51 votes, and that’s about the extent of Senator McConnell’s legislative agenda. So, I’m not surprised that he prefers the status quo. But for the majority of Americans who believe that the next generation actually demands something greater than that — from the Senate and… from each of us? We need a Senate that works.

And Mr. President, think about this, think about this — it’s easy to forget the Clean Water Act in 1972 passed 74–0. By the way, I worked with the Senator from Louisiana on surprise medical billing. I’m proud of that bill. But it’s not the Clean Water Act of 1972. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 91–6. The Children’s Health Insurance Plan, 85–15 in 1997. Comprehensive immigration reform, we were part of that effort, 68 votes in the Senate before it completely collapsed into smithereens. And the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

Does anybody think, Mr. President, do you think any of those bills would pass with a bipartisan majority like that today? Not a single one. We wouldn’t even get to the vote. We’re still on a temporary budget. I don’t need to tell you, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee. We haven’t passed any of the 12 appropriations bills this year. We’ve taken three times as long to confirm President Biden’s nominees, 103 days compared to President Reagan.

This is no way to compete in the world, Mr. President. This is no way to compete with the Chinese government’s totalitarian approach to humanity. I know we can compete, but we have to restore the Senate, and the most basic part of our job is protecting the right to vote. That’s why we’re here. Every American should be able to vote like we do in Colorado, thanks to my colleague from Colorado, Senator Hickenlooper and what he did when he was governor.

As Dr. King said, “The history of our nation is the history of a long and tireless effort to broaden the franchise of American citizens.” That’s what this bill is about, to broaden the franchise of American citizens.

If we look back at our history, this is only the latest example of how the Senate has impeded American progress, and it wouldn’t be the first time that Senate rules were changed in response to that. Before the Civil War, a time even before you were in the Senate, Mr. President, the Senate sheltered the minority interest of slaveholders on this floor.

After the war, it enabled monopolies and robber barons and isolationists to profit from the conflict and its aftermath. Each time in our country’s history, crises forced the Senate to fundamentally change the way it worked, and each change has led to meaningful progress, including clearing the way for the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, to emancipate and enfranchise former slaves, sweeping antitrust reforms, long-delayed legislation to protect civil rights.

The bottom line is that the Senate rules are not suspended in amber, especially when they’re being abused the way they’re being abused today. They can and they always have changed with the times. And finally, let me say this — as we consider these reforms, the last thing we should do is make another House of Representatives.

That’s not what I want to do. I want to have a Senate where you’ve got to come out here and debate, where you can’t filibuster in secret in your office, but you have to be out here to persuade the American people of the righteousness of your cause. Where the minority has the right to offer amendments, and where in the end, 51 senators can actually make a decision so that we can move this country forward. And so that each one of us, whether we’re in the majority today or sometime in the minority, can live under the rules that we’ve constructed to make the Senate actually function for the American people.

And that, Mr. President, I think, is why most of us have been sent here, and it’s what I hope we’re going to accomplish today. And if we don’t, we have to keep fighting. The senator from Louisiana mentioned that this isn’t 1965. Let me end by saying this — the economic gap between white Americans and Black Americans is as great today as it was in 1968. That is a brutal fact about the state of our economy, and it’s why we need a Senate that actually can respond to the needs of the American people.

And with that, Mr. President, I thank you for your patience and your indulgence. I apologize that you’re going to consume part of the last year listening to a year’s long speech. But with that I yield the floor.




U.S. Senator for Colorado

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Senator Michael Bennet

Senator Michael Bennet

U.S. Senator for Colorado

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