Schumer in bind over fight to overhaul elections

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) faces big headaches in his own party as he tries to get a sweeping elections bill to President Biden’s desk.

Schumer — who is up for reelection in 2022 and trying to keep Democrats in control of the Senate — finds himself trying to juggle competing interests over the fate of the For the People Act, a top legislative priority for the party.

At one end, he’s dealing with a progressive base that wants to get the House-passed bill across the finish line and isn’t interested in substantially narrowing the legislation to make it happen. At the other is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the biggest holdout who has shown no signs of budging, with others predicting the legislation will need changes if Democrats hope to secure enough votes on their side for passage.

Schumer is supportive of the bill and he’s publicly made big promises to Democratic voters, saying “failure is not an option.”

And he’s privately starting to lay the groundwork for trying to unify all 50 members of his caucus. Schumer held a closed-door meeting late last week that a person familiar with the meeting characterized as “the first of many discussions on the bill.” He’s also pledged to give the bill a vote before August. 

“We have to find a path to 50 votes … but we’re not there yet,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’ve got a narrow majority, we’ve got a lot of different opinions in the caucus.”

The stakes are high for Schumer, who is heading into an election year that has sparked a near-constant churn of speculation of a primary challenge from the left by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

The second-term lawmaker was one of roughly 40 House Democrats who sent a letter to Schumer urging him to use “all legislative and procedural means available in order to pass” the For the People Act.

Like-minded progressive groups view it as Schumer’s job to do whatever it takes to get the bill to the White House, even if that means overhauling the rules of the Senate.

Progressives view the legislation as their No. 1 priority, particularly as Republican-controlled state legislatures introduce and pass laws placing new restrictions on access to the ballot. State legislators this year have introduced 361 bills across 47 states that would restrict access to voting, according to a Brennan Center analysis.

The Democratic bill in Congress, which did not receive any GOP votes in the House, aims to expand ballot access while also overhauling campaign finance rules, changing the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, imposing new ethics rules for public officials and establishing new requirements on congressional redistricting.

Senate Democrats, during their caucus meeting, discussed the state of play in their own states on voting rights and “why the bill was necessary to undo new Republican suppression laws in their states,” the person familiar with the meeting told The Hill. They also discussed other aspects of the bill such as cracking down on political spending where the donor isn’t disclosed, also known as “dark money.” 

Progressive activists are vowing to make it personal for Schumer, warning that he’ll face blowback in his safely Democratic-held Senate seat if he fails to deliver on the legislation.

Advocates recently held a 24-hour rally outside Schumer’s home in Brooklyn, and 70 New York chapters of the progressive group Indivisible sent Schumer a letter urging him to bring the For the People Act to the floor for a vote.

“If Democrats must change the Senate rules to preserve the republic, so be it. … Do the job the voters sent you to do,” they wrote in the letter.

Beyond Schumer’s political future, Democrats are preparing for midterm elections where Republicans are feeling bullish about their chances of taking back at least the House. Schumer, who plays an active role in his party’s Senate races, is trying to hold on to or expand his Democratic majority in a midterm where the president’s party typically loses seats.

Senate Democrats are warning that if they fail to pass the For the People Act, they’ll face political consequences next year in the larger battle for the Senate.

“Our grassroots is going to be so discouraged if we fail to get this passed. … There will be this sense of burnout. So we are going to lose massively in the next election if we don’t get this passed,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is spearheading the bill, said during an organizing meeting with progressive groups.

“We’ll lose massively because we’re burned out by failure to deliver and we’ll lose massively because of new voting restrictions,” he added.

But that political pressure is running up against the mathematical reality of a 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation.

Schumer is likely to face calls from some co-sponsors of the bill to make changes as he tries to shore up support from the other 48 senators backing it.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), asked if the caucus was on the same page, characterized the bill as an “important subject” but one that was “still under discussion.”

And with no Republicans supporting the For the People Act, Schumer would also need to get every member of his caucus behind eliminating the legislative filibuster. That faces its own obstacles with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) opposed to taking that step; others are wary as well.

Further, it’s not clear the bill could even get 50 Democratic votes without a fundamental overhaul, one that would likely cost Schumer votes on the left.

Manchin, the most conservative member of the caucus, has said multiple times that he will not support the bill in part because it doesn’t have any GOP backers.

“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 too divided today than it’s ever been,” Manchin said.

Instead, he wants his party to focus on the narrower John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reauthorize and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

While that would satisfy Manchin, it would leave Schumer with a broad swath of his own caucus deeply unsatisfied and would spark backlash from the party’s base, who view the broader bill as fundamental to democracy.

“I don’t think we should be playing ‘Mother May I?’” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “If you think we should protect people’s right to vote … then what, you should say we shouldn’t protect people’s right to vote unless Republicans want to?”

Murphy added that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act alone “doesn’t do the job.”

“We’ve got to go broader than the John Lewis bill,” he said.

Though Schumer hasn’t taken a public position on changing the Senate rules, he’s stressed that “everything is on the table.” His strategy is to bring up bills to test GOP support and highlight what can’t pass so long as the filibuster remains intact. It’s a process that, when it comes to the For the People Act, he’s suggested could force the Senate to “evolve.”

But he faces a stumbling block on both fronts with Manchin, who has shown no signs of being swayed on nixing the filibuster or supporting the election bill.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Schumer’s No. 2, batted down questions about the bill not being able to get 50 votes, which would leave it critically short even if the legislative filibuster were removed from the political calculus.

“Some people look at a donut and just see the hole. I guess that’s the media’s position on this,” Durbin said.

Pressed on Manchin specifically, Durbin added, “I say a prayer every morning and evening for Joe Manchin.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Charles Schumer Chris Coons Chris Murphy Dick Durbin elections overhaul For the People Act Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Kyrsten Sinema moderates progressives Tim Kaine Voting Rights Act of 1965

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