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Sen. Raphael Warnock On Ending The Filibuster: 'All Options Must Be On The Table'

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., left, accompanied by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a news conference, before the vote on the Democrat's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on March 10, 2021.
Alex Brandon
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., left, accompanied by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a news conference, before the vote on the Democrat's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill on March 10, 2021.

With the signing on Thursday of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, Democrats in Washington have now secured their first major achievement since winning control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

It's a victory that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer credited this week to the voters who sent Democrats to the Senate. Speaking to reporters after final passage of the bill in the House on Wednesday, the New York Democrat pointed to two senators in particular — Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — whose surprise victories in Georgia's runoff election in January helped give Democrats control of the Senate for the first time in six years.

"Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock told the citizens of Georgia if they were elected, they would make sure that the actual promises made would be promises kept and they have been," said Schumer.

Yet back in Georgia, Republicans in the state legislature are right now in the process of advancing legislation that would roll back some of the very measures that made it easier for voters to cast ballots last fall. Republicans are seeking, among other things, to hold no more than 17 days of early voting, put new limits on early voting that happens on weekends and toughen the ID requirements when requesting an absentee ballot.

Democrats in Congress are trying to counteract those efforts in Georgia and nationally with a bill called HR1, which seeks to protect and expand voting rights while overhauling the nation's campaign finance laws. But even in a Senate now controlled by Democrats, the measure faces long odds.

For Warnock, the legislation might just be important enough to do away with the filibuster — the Senate rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass legislation.

"The attack on voting rights right now is so urgent, that all options must be on the table," he said in an interview Thursday with NPR's All Things Considered. Warnock said attempts to limit voting rights threaten "the very soil and foundation of our democracy," and that "those of us who believe in democracy have to stand up and say this will not stand."

Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length:

Interview Highlights

Let's start with this legislation in Georgia. What is at stake?

Listen, what we're talking about is the very foundation of our democracy here in the United States of America. We are engaged in a bold experiment when you consider the long march of human history — and that's what's being challenged right now in this state legislature in Georgia and in state legislatures all across the country, this bald-faced, unabashed effort to constrict the right to vote. And it's something that should concern all of us regardless of our politics, and we intend to address it.

We had Gabriel Sterling on NPR this week. This, as you know, is the Georgia election official and a Republican who went before cameras last December and begged former President Trump to stop with the lies about election fraud. We asked him about some of the specific concerns that have been raised about what's happening in Georgia. His argument was basically, why wouldn't you do this? Why don't we all want a more secure election? We asked him about concerns that these changes would specifically hurt Black voters in Georgia. He said that's a really good way to raise money for Stacey Abrams, that concern. He said, look, the laws will apply equally to everyone. What is your response, senator?

Let me be very clear. It is only because we faced the extreme machinations of a Donald Trump that the secretary of state's office and Georgia all of a sudden looks like some site for voter-rights protection. He is a part of the architecture of voter suppression in the state. And this idea of voter fraud, it is the claim itself that's a fraud. Georgia in many ways is and continues to be ground zero for voter suppression in our country. And I know what I'm talking about because I've been in the fight long before I even thought about running for office. So this is not about me. This is about the covenant we have with one another as an American people. This is about people's access to the ballot.

By one count, there are more than 250 bills nationwide in motion right now, which would aim to roll back voter access. This is where HR1 comes in, the huge bill favored by Democrats that hopes to expand voting rights and restore voting rights to people and require automatic voter registration. It passed the House. It is considered a real long shot in the Senate because it is not likely that you Democrats are going to be able to get 10 Republican votes for this to get it past the filibuster. Is this bill important enough, in your view, to kill the filibuster?

Voting rights are preservative of all other rights. This is not just one issue alongside many other issues. It is the very soil and foundation of our democracy, and the attack on voting rights right now is so urgent that all options must be on the table.

So is that a yes, you would be open to killing the filibuster?

All options are on the table, including the filibuster.

Are you having conversations to try to get some of your more moderate colleagues on both sides of the aisle on board with that?

I think it's unfortunate that this would be cast in partisan terms. I mean, the right to vote is about the covenant we have with one another as the American people, and as I argue for this I recognize that there will be days when, you know, my position about this issue or that issue will lose, it won't carry the day. But the problem is that you have politicians in state legislatures all across the country, also at the national, federal level, who have decided that apparently their message is not a winning message. And so they're trying to constrict our democracy, and those of us who believe in democracy have to stand up and say this will not stand.

The catch is, though we're not just talking about HR1. Big picture, we're talking about the challenge for Democrats of getting 10 Republican votes on anything — anything you want to pass, any of the priorities that you made campaign promises about.

Look, over the course of the work that we do in the Senate, we'll continue to talk to our colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

As the newbie in the Senate, you're coming at all this with fresh eyes, arriving in this body that gets called the world's greatest deliberative body. I was just looking at the official website and it talks about the Senate being a forum for free debate. Is that what it feels like?

Listen, I think that the Senate is like any other institution. It is as good in the moment as we make it. And so I entered the fray and this new moment in my own life and in our national life together, hopeful and with my eyes toward the future. I believe in America. I still believe that this is the greatest country on earth and this is the only place where my story would even be possible. I'm the son of a woman who grew up in Waycross, Georgia, picking cotton. The other day, she got to pick her youngest son to be a United States senator. I believe in the American promise and I think is up to those of us who have been honored with the opportunity to represent the people of our state to make that promise true for every American.

So a few weeks in, you are still hopeful? Not jaded yet.

I will not be jaded. My commitment is to do the work that I was sent here to do. And, you know, when I consider the folks who are really struggling in the midst of this pandemic, who am I to be jaded? I mean folks who are struggling just to put food on the table, who are trying to decide between buying medicine and taking care of their children's needs. I have no right to be jaded. I was sent here to do the work of the people and I'm honored to do it every single day.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.