Terri A. Sewell

10/26/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 10/26/2021 16:03

Rep. Sewell Calls on Senators to Reform the Filibuster and Pass Federal Voting Rights Legislation

Washington, D.C.- On Monday, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-07) spoke on the House Floor during the Congressional Black Caucus' Special Order Hour to call on her Senate colleagues to reform the filibuster and pass federal legislation to protect the right to vote, including her bill, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Below are Rep. Sewell's remarks:

Rep. Sewell: Madam Speaker, as we speak, our nation is facing the most concerted effort to restrict the right to vote in a generation.

Just this year, 400 bills have been introduced in state legislatures across this nation to restrict the right to vote. And in 19 states, at least 33 of these bills have become law, including the most egregious of state legislatures, Georgia, where now it is a crime to give a bottle of water to a voter as they stand in line.

Even as our very democracy comes under attack, we see Republicans standing firm in their opposition to protecting the right to vote, a bedrock principle that should never be partisan.

Just last week, we watched as every Senate Republican voted to block debate on the Freedom to Vote Act, a commonsense bill that would ensure every American has access to the ballot box. What are they afraid of, I ask? What are they afraid of?

Last week's vote made clear that Senate Republicans are unwilling to even debate voting rights, let alone hold a fair vote.

This just further demonstrates that in order to protest and protect our democracy and the sacred right to vote, we must reform the filibuster to create a path forward for must-pass pieces of legislation.

Madam Speaker, almost three weeks ago, we saw Senator Leahy introduce S. 4, the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, in the Senate. But unless we take action on the filibuster and take action now, this critical bill will face the same fate as the Freedom to Vote Act.

The way I see it -every Senator is now faced with a choice. It's voting rights or the filibuster. It's protecting our sacred right to vote and our democracy or the filibuster. It's advancing the legacy of John Lewis and the Foot Soldiers or it's the filibuster.

Now I know which side I'm on, and I hope our Senators will choose to do what's right and do away with an archaic procedural rule that has been used for decades to block racial justice in this country.

President Biden also understands the urgency of this critical moment. On Thursday, at his town hall meeting, we heard President Biden express support for reforming the filibuster to pass much-needed voting rights legislation.

I'm glad that President Biden understands the urgency of this moment and the dire need for federal oversight. It was federal oversight that brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It was federal oversight that allowed those marchers to march across that Edmund Pettus Bridge in my hometown of Selma, Alabama. When state legislatures go amuck, it's federal oversight that we need to ensure that every American has access to the ballot box.

Madam Speaker, it was Foot Soldiers like our late, great colleague and my mentor, John Lewis, who shed blood on a bridge in Selma for the equal right of all Americans to vote. If protecting that sacred right is not worth overcoming a procedural rule, then what is?

Madam Speaker, it takes only 51 votes to sit a Supreme Court Justice. For a Supreme Court Justice to have life tenure on the Supreme Court, 51 votes. And yet, it takes 60 votes to stop debate and allow a fair vote in the United States Senate on voting rights. This is unacceptable. It's un-American. It's unjust. And we in the Congressional Black Caucus are saying this is our message, this is our fight: voting rights.

We have no other choice. We must reform the filibuster and we must do it now

When I think about the shoulders on which we all stand, I am reminded of being in this House in 2015 during the State of the Union. I had as my special guest none other than Amelia Boynton Robinson who at that time was 103 years old. She was the oldest living Foot Soldier that marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis and so many others. And in 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, she was my special guest.

And as we waited in a small room off of this chamber for Barack Obama, then President of these United States, to come and deliver that State of the Union, to a person the President's cabinet said the same thing. Everyone wanted to take a picture with Ms. Amelia Boynton Robinson. They kneeled by her wheelchair and they said, "Oh, Miss Amelia, we stand on your shoulders. Oh, Miss Amelia, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for your sacrifice."

Well Miss Amelia was a little tired of people saying that to her over and over again. When Eric Holder, then Attorney General of the United States, came and kneeled beside her and said, "Oh Miss Amelia I stand on your shoulders," she said, "Get off my shoulders! All of you! Do your own work," is what she said.

So Madame Speaker, I am here to say that we, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are doing our own work. We're standing firm. We're standing solid. We're standing united in our effort to bring back the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We must do our own work, all of us. It's not enough to say that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We know these giants. Our foremothers and our forefathers, they were tacticians. They were strategists. They didn't just happen upon Selma, Alabama. They didn't just happen upon Birmingham and Memphis and Atlanta. They went looking for Good Trouble. And Good Trouble they got in. We must do the same.

We must take a play from their playbook. We stand firm. We must stand united. We must stand undeterred in our efforts to beat down any barriers that stand in the way of protecting that sacred right to vote. It was John Lewis who said that the vote is the most sacred, the most fundamental right and nonviolent tool in our democracy. THAT is the vote. The vote is fundamental to this democracy, and everything else we do will be tainted if every American lacks the right to vote.

There's nothing more sacred, more fundamental to this democracy than the right to vote. How can a procedural rule stand in the way of that right?

I can tell you that my constituents back home don't understand. They don't understand the filibuster. They don't understand this archaic procedural rule that is in the Senate. When I tell them that it stands in the way of us passing the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, they say why? Didn't we go to the polls in record numbers in states all across this nation in southern states like Georgia to deliver the Democratic majority?

And they ask of us to protect that democracy now. John Lewis said that our fight is not a fight for one day. It's not a fight for one year. Ours is a fight of a lifetime to secure that sacred right to vote.

When I close my eyes I can hear him. Can't you hear him? John Lewis said it firmly. He said it often. When you see something that's not right, that's not fair, that's not just, we have a moral obligation to stand up and do something about it.

We in the Congressional Black Caucus know that our message, our fight, our cause is nothing if not to defend the sacred right to vote. It is a right that is fundamental to our democracy and that no elected official should seek to undermine or restrict any voice in this democracy.

Our vote is our voice in this representative democracy. When you squelch the voice of one American who has that sacred right and is unable to exercise it because the lines are too long, because their names have been purged from a role, it is a fundamental threat to all of us.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We know that. We live that. Martin Luther King told us that, but we live it every day. Nothing is more fundamental to our rights than our democracy and its foundation, its bedrockā€¦ the right to vote.

When Barack Obama finally came into that small room off of this chamber, Amelia Boynton Robinson cradled his face. I think all of us understood the import of that moment. Here was the first African American President of these United States, and here was a woman at 103 years old who made the ultimate sacrifice of being bludgeoned on a bridge, shedding blood on a bridge in MY hometown of Selma, Alabama, so that all of us would have the right to vote. That one day, she would see the fruits of her labor.

Oh, what faith our foremothers and forefathers must've had. FAITH. FAITH that their sacrifices were not in vain. President Obama said, "Oh Miss Amelia, to say thank you doesn't seem adequate. I get to give a speech as President of these United States and it's because of you." Without missing a beat, this woman, 103 years old and frail, said, "Oh make it a good one! That better be a very good speech."

We should make everyday a good one. We who are the inheritors of this legacy. We who are the beneficiaries of this movement. Every day should be a good one. We should not lay our head on a pillow if we have not advanced the legacy of these foremothers and forefathers.

Every day should be a good one. So we call on the Senate to do what we KNOW is right. To do what John said is Good Trouble. Get into some Good Trouble. Let's change those rules. We have it within our power to do so, after all. WE control the Senate. WE control the House. We have the White House. Gavels given to us by ordinary people who believe that we will take that power and exercise that power on THEIR behalf.

Nothing is more fundamental than the right to vote. So in the name of John Lewis, in the name of Amelia Boynton, in the name of all of those known and unknown Foot Soldiers who had the audacity to make this nation live up to its ideals of freedom, justice, equality. Are those empty words? We must breathe life into those constitutional principles. And we can do so, if we have the will to do what we know is right.

A filibuster or voting rights?

Upholding the legacy of our foremothers and forefathers or a filibuster?

Making sure that we do all that we can to protect this democracy or a filibuster?

The choices are easy from where I sit. They're easy from where our constituents sit. I ask our Senators to do what they know is right.

If ever there's a reason to reform the filibuster, it's for that constitutionally protected right to vote. We must do so, and we must do so NOW and pass S. 4, the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Let us restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Let us pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which after all, the first 300 pages written by John Lewis, his Empowerment Act.

It's about access to the ballot box. It's about making sure that the least of these, the voiceless, have a voice in this democracy.

We must Restore the VOTE: Voices Of The Excluded. We can do that. Congress can do that. That was what the Supreme Court said in the Shelby v. Holder decision. Only Congress can come up with a modern-day formula to secure the right to vote; to get at the most egregious state actors.

We understand that we are threading a thin needle. But we have done our job, and now the Senate must do its. Let's get rid of the filibuster. Let's reform the filibuster at the very least, and ensure that every American has a right to vote and to ensure that their vote is counted.

I yield back the balance of my time.