The rule change would have required 51 votes to pass but did not have the support of all Democrats, whose leader had pushed for it. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., joined all Republicans in opposing the change.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said prior to the vote that the Senate would be "saved" by the opposition.
"Tonight, for the first time in history almost an entire political party will write in permanent ink that they would shatter the soul of the Senate for short-term power," McConnell said. "But the brave bipartisan majority of this body is about to stop them."
President Joe Biden said in a statement following the defeat: "I am profoundly disappointed that the Senate has failed to stand up for our democracy. I am disappointed -- but I am not deterred. We will continue to advance necessary legislation and push for Senate procedural changes that will protect the fundamental right to vote."
Earlier in the evening, the Senate was unable to end debate on voting rights legislation -- something that would have required 60 votes to move toward final passage.
That vote was 49-51.
"This is about the fundamental freedom to vote and what should be an unfettered access to the ballot. I am here to make a very strong statement that this is: Whatever happens tonight in terms of the outcome of this vote the president and I are not going to give up on this issue this is fundamental to our democracy and it is non-negotiable," Vice President Kamala Harris said after the first vote.
In a rare event, the Senate convened on Wednesday morning with all Democrats instructed to be in their seats inside the chamber as they tried to move forward on voting rights legislation and on a challenge to a longstanding Senate rule.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., was one of the last to speak before the voting began.
"Jan. 6 happened, but here's the thing, Jan. 5 also happened. Georgia, a state in the old confederacy, sent a Black man and a Jewish man to the Senate in one fell swoop," he said. "Our nation has always had a complicated history, and I submit to you that here's where we are -- we're swinging from a moral dilemma. We are caught somewhere between Jan. 5 and Jan. 6. Between our hopes and our fears. Between bigotry and beloved community. And in each moment we the people have to decide which way are we going to go, and what are we willing to sacrifice in order to get there. The question today is are we going to give in to a violent attack, whose aim is now being pursued through partisan voter suppression laws in state legislatures?"
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats would seek a carveout to the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation by replacing the current 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster with an old-fashioned "talking filibuster."
"We feel very simply: On something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office," Schumer said Tuesday following an evening caucus meeting. "They've got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights, the wellspring of our democracy. There's broad, strong feeling in our caucus about that."
"The eyes of history are upon us," he said to open debate Wednesday, preemptively defending the effort as a moral win, if not a legislative one. "Win, lose or draw, we are going to vote, especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of democracy."
Schumer called out McConnell directly in his speech, who has led his party to block Democrats' election reform efforts five times in the last year, blasting him for falsely claiming that red states haven't changed laws restricting voter access.
"Just as Donald Trump has his "big lie," Mitch McConnell now has his: States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever," Schumer said.
Sen. Schumer knocks Republicans on voting rights during filibuster showdown: “Just as Donald Trump has his 'big lie,' Leader McConnell now has his: ‘States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever.’” https://t.co/6AqGNTnvGd pic.twitter.com/2OVa4ggi8f— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 19, 2022
He also addressed two Democratic senators who hold what Schumer thinks is a false view that the chamber's filibuster brings greater bipartisanship -- and he countered in his remarks: "Isn't the protection of voting rights -- the most fundamental wellspring of this democracy -- more important?"
McConnell, in another blistering speech, said a rule change would "destroy the Senate" and warned of a "nuclear winter" if Democrats get their way and "blow up" the chamber's rule to pass voting rights legislation, which he called a "partisan Frankenstein bill."
"This is exactly the kind of toxic world view that this president pledged to disavow, but it is exactly what has consumed his party on his watch," McConnell said, building on days of swipes at President Joe Biden.
McConnell accused Democrats of trying to "smash and grab as much short-term power as they can carry," and said, "For both groups of senators, this vote will echo for generations."
When Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tried to ask McConnell a question after his speech and get him to engage in debate on the issue, the Republican leader walked away.
"I'm sorry he did not stay for the question," Durbin said to the chamber. "Does he really believe that there is no evidence of voter suppression in the actions of 19 states?"
Democrats' election reform bill comes at a time when 19 states have restricted access to voting fueled by false claims in the wake of the 2020 election, according to the the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. The bill at hand would make Election Day a federal holiday, expand early voting and mail-in-voting, and give the federal government greater oversight over state elections.
Schumer has proposal to reverting to a talking filibuster on the issue would allow Democrats to subvert GOP obstruction to make way for the bill's final passage.
Under a talking filibuster, senators are required to "hold the floor" during debate, testing their stamina as they stand and speak to block bills. Once a party runs out of steam, the chamber would then pass the bill that was filibustered by a simple majority. So, in theory, Harris, as president of the Senate, would serve as a tie-breaking vote for Democrats to pass the once-filibustered bill.
But both Manchin and Sinema have repeatedly made clear their opposition to changing the filibuster rule even in order to pass voting rights, although they say they support the underlying legislation.
"I don't know how you break a rule to make a rule," Manchin told reporters Tuesday, shooting down the proposed talking filibuster.
Manchin defended his decision to vote against changing Senate rules in a floor speech Wednesday evening that he said aimed to "rebut what I believe is a great misleading of the American people" by Senate Democrats.
"Eliminating the filibuster would be the easy way out. It was not meant to be easy," Manchin said. "I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country not to divide our country. We are called the United States, not the divided states, and putting politics and party aside is what we are supposed to do."
Manchin made another plea for bipartisan cooperation and said he believes election reform could be achieved in a bipartisan fashion if members worked at it.
"I don't know what happened to the good old days but I can tell you they're not here now," Manchin said.
The West Virginia lawmaker said he respects that many Democrats have migrated in their stance on the filibuster and asked for respect in his steadfast opposition.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., however, laid into Manchin and Sinema Wednesday evening.
"I do not understand why two Democrats who presumably understand the importance of the Freedom to Vote Act, and as I understand it, will vote for the Freedom to Vote Act, are not prepared to change the rules so that that bill could actually become law. That I do not understand," he said. "If you think this bill makes sense and if you're worried about the future of American democracy and if you are prepared to vote for the bill, then why are you wasting everybody's time and not voting for the rule change that allows us to pass the bill? You know, it's like inviting somebody to lunch and putting out a great spread and saying you can't eat."
Generally, senators rarely occupy the chamber while debate is open and only those wishing to speak deliver remarks to a largely empty room -- but that was not the case for the high-stakes showdown Wednesday.
Among those who spoke was Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who warned Democrats that they're embarking on a "slippery slope" in attempting to carve out an exception to the filibuster to pass a piece of legislation.
"They'll soon find themselves rueing the day their party broke the Senate," he said. "The next Republican-controlled Senate can make the 2017 tax cuts permanent, ensure that blue state millionaires are required to pay their fair share of federal taxes," he went on, listing GOP platforms including implementing a 20-week ban on abortion and establishing concealed carry of firearms nationwide.
Both parties have supported filibuster carveouts in the past decade for judicial nominees -- first under then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who lowered the threshold for judicial nominees to 51 votes to make way for then-President Barack Obama's nominees in 2013. McConnell, as Senate majority leader in 2017, also used the so-called "nuclear option" to confirm then-President Donald Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.