Voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital to protecting democracy collapsed on Wednesday due to the opposition of two Democratic senators.
Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia refused to join their own party in changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican block after a raw, emotional debate.
The outcome was a stinging defeat for President Joe Biden and his party, coming at the tumultuous close to his first year in office.
Current senate rules – referred to as the filibuster – require 60 votes to pass non-bipartisan legislation.
Despite a day of piercing debate and speeches, Democrats could not persuade Ms Sinema and Mr Manchin to change the Senate procedures for the bill and allow a simple majority to advance it.
“This is a moral moment,” said Georgia Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.
Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states are passing laws making it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, requiring certain types of identification and ordering other changes.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided, able to break a tie in the 50-50 Senate if needed, but she left before the final roll call. The rules change was rejected in a 52-48 vote, with Manchin and Sinema joining the Republicans in opposition.
The evening voting brought an end, for now, to legislation that has been a top Democratic priority since the party swept control of Congress and the White House.
“I haven’t given up,” Mr Biden said earlier at a White House news conference.
The Democrats’ bill, the Freedom to Vote: John R Lewis Act, would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots — which have become especially popular during the pandemic — and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. It has passed the House.
Both Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema say they support the legislation, but Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed. It failed 49-51 on a largely party-line vote.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put forward a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” on this one bill.
It would require senators to stand at their desks and exhaust the debate before holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that simply allows senators to privately signal their objections.
But that, too, failed because Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema said they were unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.