On Senate Floor, Portman Opposes Democrats’ Radical Voting Overhaul Bill & Effort To Dismantle Key Senate Institution That Incentives Bipartisanship
WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor this afternoon outlining his opposition to Democrats’ controversial, sweeping “voting rights” legislation. Portman detailed the numerous problems with the legislation before chiding Democrats for using this issue to fan the flames of division and partisanship in the country. Portman also voiced his opposition to Democrats’ plan to dismantle the legislative filibuster, which brings members together and leads to bipartisan, sustainable laws — citing the bipartisan infrastructure law as an example. Instead, he called on Senators from both sides of the aisle to work together on common-sense solutions, such as reforming the Electoral Count Act.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“Mr. President, I was asked recently what I think is the number one issue facing America. It's a tough question. I had a lot of issues raised through my mind: inflation, the debt workforce issues, the crisis at our Southern border, the explosion of COVID cases, the deadly opioid epidemic, a warming planet, Russia and China flexing their muscles and creating more volatility around the world. We've got plenty of challenges, don't we? “But you know what I landed on? What I think is our biggest problem? It's the increasing division, even polarization, of our politics and our country. It's what makes it so hard to address all those other issues that I named that are so important to the families we represent.
“Last week on the Senate floor, my Democratic colleague from Arizona, Senator Sinema, called it ‘a disease of division.’ Well put. When we're together, this country can achieve great things and has over the years. It can provide a beacon of hope to a troubled world. But as Lincoln warned, a house divided against itself cannot stand. In this body, we should be figuring out how to come together to help America stand and stand strong to address our many challenges. That's why I'm so discouraged by what I see playing out on the U.S. Senate floor again this week.
“I see an attempt by Democratic leadership to fan the flames of distrust. I see an attempt to further divide an already splintered country. Both by exaggerated arguments being made to advance controversial legislation opposed by every single Republican regarding the tough issue of voting. And then to try to achieve this purely partisan objective by changing a foundation of the Senate, to dismantle the one Senate rule, the legislative filibuster, that works to bring us together rather than pull us apart.
“Equally troubling to me is that this seems to be a purely political exercise now in that the conclusion seems predetermined. Apparently the Senate is being dragged through this divisive and ugly partisan debate knowing that it will not achieve a legislative result, but only a deepening and hardening of the political lines in each camp.
“Here in the Senate, most Republicans and most Democrats say they want to bring the country together. I think they're sincere about that. This message was an explicit part of President Biden's campaign for President. Yet there is nothing about the harsh partisan rhetoric from the president's speech on this topic in Atlanta last week or much of the floor debate this week and last week that does anything but push our country further apart.
“First, the substance of the legislative fight: Democrats have been highly critical of those Republicans who refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election, pointing out accurately that dozens of lawsuits failed to show adequate fraud to change the result. They have attacked some Republicans because they had said that the election was rigged for questioning the state-by-state certification process that has led to deeper rifts in our nation and a significant number of Republican voters questioning the legitimacy of the election. I get that. So why now are Democratic leaders and President Biden using the exact same language, literally saying the elections are rigged, literally saying that? Why are they perpetrating their own election narrative that does not fit the facts, but serves to push both sides deeper into their own camps and in particular now leads Democrats to think elections are illegitimate.
“Majority Leader Schumer claims, 'Republicans are pushing voter suppression and election nullification laws.' President Biden has compared state efforts to tighten up election administration to Jim Crow laws, compared Republicans to notorious racists in our history. These attacks are overwrought, exaggerated, and deeply divisive. Here's what the nonpartisan and respected group called No Labels has said about the Democratic attacks, ‘If you dig into these state legislative proposals, you'll find most entail tightening up procedures pertaining to registration, mail and absentee voting and voter ID laws that were loosened in 2020 in the name of making it safer for people to vote amid the COVID pandemic. Many leading Democrats and Liberal commentators have taken to describing these measures as Jim Crow 2.0, which is to say they are somehow worse than the original Jim Crow era, which entailed poll taxes and literacy tests, violent intimidation of Black voters by the KKK, and even outright prohibition on black voters participating in party primaries in Southern States. To suggest that any voting measures being debated today in America are somehow worse than this is simply irresponsible demagoguery.' That comes from No Labels, which is a nonpartisan group, Democrats and Republicans trying to find that middle ground.
“Now, to be fair, this group has been critical of Republican claims of widespread election fraud that cannot be backed up. So what are the actual facts? First, the Constitution guarantees all citizens 18 years of age or older the right to vote in elections, regardless of race or gender, period. The Federal Voting Rights Act reaffirms that right and makes it enforceable in federal court. In 2006, Congress voted in a bipartisan way to reauthorize this important law for 25 years, through 2031. I voted for and strongly support the Voting Rights Act and have long supported other common-sense efforts to increase voter confidence in our elections. In fact, there is a bipartisan effort underway right now to deal with a real problem to ensure that after the fact certified elections are respected. This will require making overdue reforms to the Electoral Count Act and some other reasonable updates to federal election procedures. I'm happy to be working with a small group of Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans on those efforts. That's how the system should work. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can sit down and talk and find common ground to address problems.
“What Republicans and most Americans don't support is an unprecedented federal takeover of our election system, which is what the overly broad, party-line bills proposed this week by the Democrats will do. Let me be clear. Despite what Democratic leaders are saying to jam these bills through Congress, our democracy is not, as they say, in crisis because it is too hard to vote. We just had a national election in 2020 with the highest voter turnout in 120 years. 94% of voters said it was easy for them to vote. This is according to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent. That's good. Some have said drastic changes are needed at the federal level because the States are now enacting voter restrictions. Some point to the liberal Brennan Center, which reports that 19 states have enacted laws which it characterizes as restricting the right to vote. As noted above, again by the nonpartisan No Labels group, when you really look at these laws, the truth is that they largely make modest changes in election law administration, such as the date that voters may apply for mail in ballots. We're ensuring voters are who they say they are through voter ID and other signature requirements. Something, by the way, the vast majority of Americans support. Some of the laws return to state practices closer to the status quo before the pandemic. As an example, some laws reduced the number of ballot drop boxes in cases where there were no ballot drop boxes before COVID.
“And many of the States the Democrats criticized for improving their election process are enacting laws similar to those that have long been in place in states represented by Democrats, so called blue States. For example, under its new law, Georgia has a limit of 17 days of in person early voting, 17 days. New Jersey and New York have nine days of in person voting. Connecticut doesn't have any early voting. Georgia has also added one extra Saturday of early voting. Georgia's new requirement that voters provide their driver's license or state ID numbers when applying for mail-in and ballots, which Democrats have criticized, is the same as laws in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Rhode Island enacted a voter ID law a decade ago. And with regard to President Biden's home state, the Atlantic has noted that 'few States have more limited voting options than Delaware.'
“I frankly have not heard Democratic leadership calling out any of these Democrat majority states for pushing what they deem to be voter suppression. I don't know anyone who doesn't believe it should be easy to vote and hard to cheat. Every state has to find that balance, but they have to find it while not violating the Voting Rights Act. I don't agree with every policy every state has in place. I find some too restrictive. As an example, I support no fault absentee voting, as we do in Ohio. It works well. You don't have to have a reason, you can vote absentee. I like to see every mailbox, in a sense, be a ballot box, in essence. I find that some of the laws in some of the states lack adequate security, on the other hand. For example, I think some form of ID is smart, as do the vast majority of Americans. But in our federal system, within the guardrails of the Voting Rights Act and consistent with the Constitution, that decision is left up to state legislatures, closer to the people and accountable to the voters. That's just a fundamental philosophical difference we have here on the Senate floor. We see it play out on lots of issues. And now on this one.
“I'm very proud of the job that my state of Ohio and our bipartisan election officials in every county do in our elections. In the last election, we had a record 5.97 million Ohioans cast a vote. More voters than ever. It represented 74 percent of eligible voters in our state, the second highest percentage in the history of Ohio. Despite the challenges of running the highest turnout election in our state's history during an unprecedented pandemic, it was widely regarded as the most secure and most successful Ohio election ever. Now is not the time to take the responsibility away from Ohio state and local officials. Article one, Section four of the Constitution clearly assigns that authority over elections to the States. Alexander Hamilton acknowledged in Federalist 59 that only in extraordinary circumstances should the federal government become involved in election law, explaining that allowing the federal government to run elections would have been, 'premeditated engine for the destruction of state governments.' We are not in extraordinary circumstances right now.
“In general, it's become easier and easier to vote in America, and that's a good thing. And it's become easier to vote in America than many other democracies around the world. And that's good too. Easy to vote, hard to cheat. Despite all the fiery speeches on the floor stating the contrary over the past week, according to a recent survey from Morning Consult, only 33 percent of American adults think it's too hard for eligible voters to vote. A larger share – 44 percent -- actually think current rules aren't strict enough. Having heard the debate, this is what voters think.
“Not only are Democrats attempting a federal takeover of our election system, but because they have chosen to change the constitutionally based election system in a purely partisan way, they don't have the 60 votes necessary to get something passed here in the United States Senate. That's why, instead of reaching out to find a bipartisan way forward, they are also proposing to fundamentally change the longstanding rules of the Senate. Specifically, they are proposing to do away with what's called the legislative filibuster in order to advance their federal election takeover bills by a simple majority instead of the normal 60 votes. This 60 vote margin, the legislative filibuster, is the one tool left to encourage bipartisanship, not just here in the Senate, but in our system. In the House. At the White House. Yes, it provides important minority rights in the Senate that protect the country from legislation that is too far out of the mainstream, and it helps pass good legislation like Medicare or Social Security with big votes, big margins that means those programs can be sustained and they can be relied upon. That's good for our country.
“Most importantly to me, the legislative filibuster is the one thing that encourages us to work in a bipartisan way. The successful passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law last year is a good example. I was in the middle of those negotiations. We knew we had to achieve 60 votes in a 50-50 Senate. What did that mean? That meant that we had to find common ground. We had to make concessions on both sides in order to get to 60 votes. As a result, we got well over 60, into the 70s and a good piece of legislation that was able to pass the House and be signed into law and is now in place as sustainable, reliable legislation. Did I agree with everything in it? No, nor did anybody else. But to get to those 60 votes, we all had to make certain concessions.
“Although it's a Senate rule, the legislative filibuster also requires members of the House of Representatives to come up with more bipartisan solutions because they know their legislation has to pass the Senate if they want it to become law. Just as I have been a committed bipartisan legislator here in the Senate for the past eleven years, the same was true in the House for twelve years, where I regularly used the fact that we needed 60 votes in the Senate to force colleagues on both sides of the aisle to come together and find a way to pass legislation in a bipartisan manner. When I was an Executive Branch in two Cabinet level jobs in the Bush 43 administration and as Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs for Bush 41, that 60 vote necessity in the Senate calmed the passions within the administration and forced us to find common ground to work in a more bipartisan manner, resulting in more effective results that last the test of time.
“I know the benefits to our country of requiring more than a bare Senate majority that shifts back and forth because I've lived it in the House, in the Senate, and in the White House. And it's not just me or other Republicans now saying that the legislative filibuster is good for our federal system. Less than five years ago, 32 Senate Democrats, including then Senator, and now Vice President, Kamala Harris, joined with me and other Republicans in signing an open letter insisting the legislative filibuster should not change. This was at a time when there was a Democrat in the White House, but Republicans controlled the Senate. It appears that those 32 Democrats were happy to defend the filibuster as good for the country when they were in the minority, but not now, when the country is even further divided and they have a majority.
“All but a couple of those members have shifted their views. I would encourage my Democratic colleagues to re-read their own letter which makes such a compelling case that this is about the country, not about one political party or another. Back in 2005, when Senator Schumer called abolishing the filibuster, 'a temper tantrum by those on the hard right' who 'want their way every single time.' That was in 2005. Now he is majority leader and he has changed his tune.
“This seems shortsighted to me since the history of the Senate is to change the majority regularly. We don't know who's going to be in the majority in the next Senate. Could the Senate rules be improved to allow more debate and more progress on legislation? Absolutely. There's bipartisan interest in this and we should turn it into something constructive. After this political exercise we're going through right now we should turn to the issue of reforming the rules around here. Let's have each Leader choose a few interested members. Let's hammer out a bipartisan proposal that allows more amendments and makes it easier to get legislation passed. It's not that hard. But eliminating the one tool that forces us to come together makes it harder to address those many challenges we face. It makes it harder to pass legislation broadly supported and sustainable to actually help the people we represent.
“And that's what we were elected to do. That's our job. Not inflame the passions of our most committed and hardline supporters, but achieve results. And as I said at the outset, between inflation and COVID, our Southern border and more, we've got plenty to do. I urge my Democratic colleagues to step back from the brink, to think twice before trying to destroy what has made the US Senate such a unique and valuable part of the world's longest lasting and most successful democracy.
“And I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support sensible rules changes and recommit to use the 60 vote margin responsibly to generate consensus and find that elusive common ground that will best serve those we represent and that will keep our great Republic the envy of the world. I yield back my time.”