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Sen. Merkley on Voting Rights, the Filibuster & Why Infrastructure Deal Must Address Climate Crisis

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Pressure is growing on Democrats to abolish the Senate filibuster in order to pass a major voting rights bill and other legislation. Republicans this week used the filibuster to prevent debate on the For the People Act, which would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court eight years ago. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is a lead sponsor of the For the People Act and self-described “Chief Filibuster Antagonist,” says Republicans have broken the Senate’s “social contract” of bipartisan cooperation in favor of total obstruction of all Democratic priorities. “The majority makes the decision, not the minority,” he adds. Meanwhile, as much of the Pacific Northwest faces record-shattering temperatures, 30 degrees or more above average, including Merkley’s home state of Oregon, lawmakers in Washington continue to negotiate over an infrastructure bill Democrats say needs to include major new funding to address the climate crisis. Merkley explains why he said, “If there’s no climate, there’s no deal.”

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StoryJun 23, 2021A Fight for Democracy: GOP Blocks Voting Bill as Democrats Renew Push to Reform Filibuster
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

In Washington, D.C., several civil rights leaders, including the Reverends Jesse Jackson and William Barber, were arrested Wednesday at a nonviolent protest outside the U.S. Senate as they demanded West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and other lawmakers abolish the filibuster to pass a major voting rights bill, as well as other legislation. Their protest came a day after all 50 Republican senators blocked debate on the For the People Act, the most sweeping voter rights bill in decades.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the lead sponsor in the Senate of the For the People Act.

Senator Merkley, welcome back to Democracy Now! We had you on during one of the U.N. climate summits. Now you’re in Washington, although Oregon is facing the hottest weather in history. We’ll talk about that in a moment. But right now let’s talk about the heat in the Capitol. Let’s talk about what just went down yesterday with your For the People Act and what your plans are going to be now that the Republicans defeated it in this procedural vote, though didn’t kill it overall.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Absolutely. A pleasure to be with you.

And yesterday, I was so pleased that every Democrat stood up for the rights of citizens and the principles of our Constitution, principles like defending the ballot box for every single American against the targeted attacks that are erupting all over the country; taking on gerrymandering, which is an attack on equal representation; and stopping billionaires and corporations from buying elections with dark money. These are things supported by Republicans, Democrats, independents across the country, but not by Republicans here in the Senate. And every Republican voted against proceeding to debate the bill.

I must say it’s really a disturbing moment, in which Republicans are returning to an argument that was here throughout the Jim Crow past, in which they say states’ rights triumph equality of opportunity for people to participate in our democracy. It’s a shield for enabling states to pursue obstruction against communities of color, Black Americans, tribal members and college students. And it’s simply ethically wrong. It’s morally wrong. It’s wrong in the concept of our Constitution of government by and for the people. And so, that was — think of that as the starting line, not the finish line, for the battle for this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, your colleague from West Virginia, wrote a piece for the Charleston Gazette-Mail headlined “Why I’m voting against the For the People Act.” In it, Manchin wrote, quote, “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.” Manchin also wrote, quote, “Democrats have again proposed eliminating the Senate filibuster rule in order to pass the For the People Act with only Democratic support. They’ve attempted to demonize the filibuster and conveniently ignore how it has been critical to protecting the rights of Democrats in the past.” Your Twitter handle says you’re “Dad, runner, Chief Filibuster Antagonist. U.S. Senator from Oregon.” Your response to Manchin, as well as to Sinema from Arizona?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, in its best framework, the idea is that there’s a social contract in the Senate in which the majority doesn’t run over the top of the minority. The minority can delay in order to seek a compromise, delay to make sure they have a chance to be heard, to participate in amendments. But there’s another half of that social contract, which is, in the end, the majority makes the decision, not the minority. And it’s that second half that is broken.

It’s the basic strategy of the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who believes that delay and obstruction is an effective policy or strategy for power. And he has a record to prove it. By obstructing a lot of what Obama did, he helped the Senate be retaken by a Republican majority. I must say, this is a little bit like the philosophy of “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In other words, if the minority is always primarily interested in obstructing the majority from addressing America’s problem means the Senate is broken and doesn’t address America’s problems.

So, I think there is room to honor the best vision, the best possibility of this social contract, that might be compatible, if you will, with the viewpoints of my colleagues, including Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, but it has to fulfill both halves of that social contract, not just the delay-for-a-possibility-of-compromise half.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Senator Merkley, could you talk about the importance, the particular significance, of the For the People Act at this moment in the U.S., as we’re witnessing a massive crackdown on voting rights in Republican-led states? According to the Voting Rights Lab, 18 states have enacted more than 30 laws to restrict voting since — just since the November election. And this is quite apart from the fact that, you know many have commented on how difficult it is under ordinary circumstances, without these voting rights restrictions, to vote in the U.S. There are often very long lines. Elections take place on Tuesdays, and not on weekends to make it easier for people to vote. Your response?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, it’s really shocking to see state after state enact these laws. If we turn the clock back, it’s the Supreme Court that gutted the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 act. And basically, the court said, “We’re out of that era, and we’re not going to see that again. This is not a current challenge after half a century.” And within days of them gutting that, states started to develop these strategies. It was just irresistible to say, “Hey, we get more partisan advantage if we can stop communities that tend to lean to the Democratic Party.” Well, that means more votes, more victories for the Republican Party.

And think about how the basic strategy works. The idea is, try to make sure that it’s hard to vote before Election Day. And why is that? Because on Election Day, there’s true and tried methods of discouraging people from voting. You shorten the number of hours in the evening to keep working people from voting. You decrease the number of polling locations in communities that you don’t want to vote. You reduce the number of staff so that the lines get longer. You change the location so people are confused about where to vote. You put out false information about where to vote. And you proceed to put out false information about when the election is. In fact, in some cases, social media that says, “Oh, so sorry you missed the election last Tuesday,” so people think they already missed it and then don’t show up on Election Day. If you can take and use these strategies, reduce a 2, 3, 4% swing, you have a dramatic impact on races across the country in favor of the Republican Party. And so, this is the temptation, a temptation turned out to be all to irresistible. It’s power over principle.

And it’s up to us, here in the Capitol, just as we did in 1965, to say, “No, we are not going to allow this type of discriminatory behavior, predatory behavior, that assaults the rights of millions and millions of Americans to cast their ballot, with their voice about the direction of this country.” Republicans are saying, “Well, it’s states’ rights.” Well, actually, it’s not. The Constitution calls for the opportunity for Congress to set standards. And it did that because all of us are affected about who goes to Congress. Out in Oregon, we don’t just have an interest in fair elections in Oregon; we have an interest in fair elections across the country. And for citizens in every other state, that’s true, as well. So, at this moment, when these egregious acts are occurring, it’s absolutely imperative that we stand up to stop this assault on the right of Americans to vote.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Senator Merkley, President Biden himself has vowed to protect voting rights at the federal level. What can the president do now?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: So, the president can activate his judicial department to challenge these laws in court, seek stays on their implementation. But that’s a very slow, difficult process. He can also use his bully pulpit to rally the country to say this is simply wrong. And he can lay out the case, as President Johnson did over half a century ago, that the time has passed to allow any — not that it should ever have been allowed to begin with, but that, certainly, the time — we cannot return to that era, Jim Crow era, of directed discrimination. So, his bully pulpit and his judicial department are tools that he can fully employ.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he failed to do that this week, not tweeting about or giving any kind of major speech, a push on your bill, on the For the People Act?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Well, I did appreciate the statements he put out, the meetings that he held. I think this is kind of the first round of the battle. Look for many more rounds to come. And we anticipate the president will deploy additional tools in the coming battles. So, no, I’m not disappointed at this point, but we do need full partnership with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you call Manchin’s opposition to ending the filibuster racist?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: No, I won’t call it that, because his impulse is to say that this efforts — these efforts should be bipartisan. And he’s right. Republicans across the country support these principles of defending the ballot box, taking on gerrymandering, stop billionaires from buying elections. And so, he’s basically saying, “Let’s do everything possible to reach out and make this an inclusive, bipartisan effort.” I agree with that instinct.

And right now we’re still on that path. That is that Joe Manchin put out a set of principles. We gave a lot of feedback to him. He’s producing it in legislative language. When we have that, I anticipate that he and every member will help him, will reach out again to Republicans to say, “Come join us.”

And when that fails, because most likely it will fail, given Mitch McConnell, minority leader’s fierce opposition, then we’re going to have to have the 50 Democrats sit down in a room and say, “OK, we pursued that vision of bipartisanship, but we took an oath to the Constitution. We have to defend these rights of all Americans. How are we going to get it done?” And then we’ll have to look at restoring that vision that I referred to, in which, yes, the minority can delay; we’ve listened to them; we should give them the opportunity to make amendments, a fair debate on the floor; but then, when that is done, we have to find a path to be able to pass this bill.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Merkley, I want to ask you about the climate crisis. This week, much of the Pacific Northwest faces record-shattering temperatures, 30 degrees or more above average. National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center tweeted Wednesday, “Record-Breaking and Dangerous Heatwave coming to the West. Over 80 sites are forecast to break daily high temperature records starting this weekend.” Highs on Sunday could approach an all-time high of 107 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon, where few people have air conditioning. This comes as lawmakers in Washington continue to negotiate over their infrastructure bill, that Democrats say need to include major new funding to address the climate crisis. So, Senator Merkley, you’re not only in a hot seat in Washington, D.C., but when you go home, clearly, to Oregon, where, to say the least, it is hot. “If there’s no climate, there’s no deal,” is what progressive Democrats are saying. Do you agree? You yourself have said this. How do you accomplish this?

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. So, what we’re concerned about — and Senator Markey and I held a press conference to drive this theme home, “no climate, no deal” — is that given that carbon dioxide is building up so much heat, and methane is building up so much heat in the atmosphere, it’s causing these hugely disruptive effects. And you’re referring to the heat in Oregon. I can tell you, people are terrified of the coming fire season. Last year in Oregon, we had the Labor Day fires, in which half a dozen towns were burned to the ground. I drove 600 miles up and down the state and never got out of the smoke. People are terrified about this heat and the accompanying drought.

And it’s not just an anomaly; it is a very well-anchored trend. You compare the last 30 years to previous 30 years, and you see massive drought across the West, a decrease in rainfall, and then you see significant heat increases. And when it’s an average over 30 years, you can’t blame it on any one thing — very dramatically different than the average over the hundred years in the 1900s.

So, here we are, with the opportunity, with a president who believes we have to drive a bold, fast transition from carbon dioxide and natural gas, methane, to electricity and renewable electricity. And there’s a possibility that there’s an infrastructure bill that sets sail, and when that ship sets sail, it might leave energy-transforming infrastructure, renewable energy infrastructure, on the dock. And that’s unacceptable. We cannot let that happen. So, the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the reconciliation infrastructure bill, which would address the climate crisis boldly, have to be welded together.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Republicans voting against the January 6th commission, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expecting to announce now creation of a select committee to investigate the U.S. Capitol insurrection, after Republicans blocked that bill that would have created the bipartisan commission. You have 30 seconds.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY: Yes. Here in the Senate, they blocked even debating it. It’s shameful. When there is such an assault on the Capitol — hadn’t happened before in a hundred years — we need to understand every aspect of it, should be done in a bipartisan way. Republicans should have voted 100% with us.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the lead Senate sponsor of S. 1, the For the People Act.

And that does it for our broadcast. A very Happy Birthday to Karen Ranucci! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike DiFilippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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