Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives to the Capitol on May 10
Greg Nash

One of Democrats’ biggest priorities — a sweeping bill to overhaul elections — is facing long odds of passing the Senate.

Democrats are set to meet Thursday to talk about the For the People Act, a roughly 800-page measure that would set national standards aimed at expanding access to voting. Progressives view the bill as a must-pass, and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to bring it to the floor.

Senate Democrats are tamping down expectations for Thursday’s meeting, characterizing it as largely educational after the Senate Rules Committee held an hours-long markup Tuesday full of high drama, and hope to use the gathering as a way to solidify unity around the bill.

“My goal is … to convince everybody that we have to be together on this. We were the subject of a physical attack on Jan. 6 that was designed to disenfranchise 80 million people,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who has been spearheading the bill in the Senate, said the meeting will allow members who haven’t been involved with the legislation to ask questions.

“It’s just a kind of a ‘let’s make sure we understand what this bill is,’ ” he said. “Between now and when we can get it to the floor, we’re totally open to other insights.”

But Democrats face big challenges in the Senate, alongside intense pressure from their base, to make good on their promise to send the legislation to President Biden’s desk.

To get the bill through the Senate, they would need support from all 50 Democrats and at least 10 Republicans — an unlikely scenario given that all nine Republicans on the Rules Committee, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), voted against the bill, which has no Republican co-sponsors.

McConnell teed off against the bill again on Wednesday from the Senate floor, calling it a “one-party takeover of our political system.”

The near-certainty that Republicans are not going to come on board is fueling new calls from progressives for Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022, to quickly nix the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most bills.

Ellen Sciales, press secretary for the Sunrise Movement, warned that if the Senate doesn’t pass the For the People Act, Schumer will have “to answer to an angry constituency of people back at home.”

“Sen. Schumer must see past the Republican BS and follow through on his promise to pass the For the People Act. … Unless he’s lying to us, this means Sen. Schumer must commit to abolishing the filibuster and pass the For the People Act swiftly and urgently,” she said.

In New York, 70 groups aligned with the progressive group Indivisible sent a letter to Schumer saying they wanted him to bring the bill to the Senate floor by the end of the month, arguing the legislation “can’t move forward unless you start taking aggressive measures to push it through the Senate.”

Schumer hasn’t taken a position on getting rid of the filibuster but floated that Republicans blocking the For the People Act could force the Senate to “evolve.” He’s said he’ll give it a vote by August.

Still, any efforts to nix the filibuster to pass the bill faces two big hurdles. The first is that Democrats don’t have the 50 votes needed to get rid of it, with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) opposed to eliminating it.

The other is that Senate Democrats aren’t unified behind the For the People Act, which would be needed to pass it even if they changed the rules, underscoring that the filibuster isn’t the only obstacle.

Manchin, who will not be at Thursday’s meeting because he’ll be traveling with first lady Jill Biden in West Virginia, reiterated Wednesday that he couldn’t support the bill.

“I’m not supporting that the way it is. I think it’s too darn broad and we have no bipartisan support. The country is more divided today than it’s ever been,” Manchin said.

Instead, Manchin is urging Democrats to focus on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which reauthorizes and strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said he wanted to bring the bill up in his committee “sooner rather than later,” but that it likely wouldn’t be sooner than next month.

Democrats don’t appear resigned to count Manchin out just yet.

When a reporter noted that 50 Democrats don’t support the For the People Act, Durbin hedged.

“I wouldn’t go that far. I would say that some are considering it,” he said.

The bill, which passed the House without any GOP support, requires states to offer mail-in ballots and a minimum of 15 days of early voting, in addition to pushing for online and same-day voter registration. The measure also calls for the creation of independent commissions to draw congressional districts in an effort to put an end to partisan gerrymandering.

Democrats argue the legislation is necessary as Republicans in state legislatures across the country try to place new restrictions on voting. An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that as of late March, legislatures have introduced 361 bills with “restrictive provisions” in 47 states.

“The state-level efforts to roll back voting have all been kind of based in … the same big lie that led people to attack us. So if we have a Senate majority and we’ve been subject to an attack ourselves to try to disenfranchise people, why would we say, ‘Well, we have the majority, I guess we can’t do anything’? We’ve got to be unified, and we’ve got to be strong,” Kaine said.

Democrats also aren’t closing the door to making additional changes to the sweeping legislation as they try to get the entire caucus familiar with the details.

“It’s an enormous proposal, it’s really important. There are things some Democrats want added, there are some things Democrats want subtracted. So I think we’re going to try to get a real sense of where the caucus is,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Asked if he thought there could be additional changes, Durbin added: “I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Tags Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Elections Filibuster For the People Act Jeff Merkley Jill Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell progressives Tim Kaine voting rights

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