Senate

Democratic divisions threaten Biden’s voting push

Democrats are facing significant internal stumbling blocks to getting their voting rights legislation through the Senate as President Biden calls on Congress to get the bill to his desk.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is driving Democrats toward a fight later this month on a sweeping election reform bill that, among other provisions, would aim to expand access to the ballot by creating nationwide election standards.

But divisions in the 50-member Senate Democratic Caucus, coupled with disagreement on what to do about the Senate’s filibuster rules, are lowering the odds that a bill makes it to the White House.

“We’re going to have to sit down at the table and see what it takes,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said about how the caucus can coalesce behind the For the People Act, also known as S. 1, ahead of a vote this month.

Democrats consider the legislation a top priority as GOP state legislatures across the country introduce, debate and pass bills to place new limits on voting.

The Brennan Center for Justice found that as of mid-May, 14 states had enacted 22 laws with new voting restrictions and that legislators across 48 states had introduced at least 389 bills this year that would restrict access to the ballot.

The state-level debate comes as former President Trump and some of his allies have dug in on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, despite losing dozens of court cases and being dismissed by election experts.

Biden leaned into the voting fight this week — a step long pushed for by progressive activists and civil rights groups — by urging Democrats to pass legislation and announcing that Vice President Harris would be taking the lead on voting rights.

“The Senate will take it up later this month, and I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage,” Biden said about the upcoming vote on the For the People Act.

But Biden and Schumer have a straightforward, significant problem to getting the bill through the Senate: math.

The legislation doesn’t have the backing of all 50 members of the Democratic caucus.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has come out against the bill, arguing that it’s too broad. The measure requires states to offer mail-in ballots and a minimum of 15 days of early voting, while calling for online and same-day voter registration and the creation of independent commissions to draw congressional districts in an effort to put an end to partisan gerrymandering.

Democrats had their second closed-door meeting on the bill last week. Manchin, who didn’t attend the first because he was traveling with first lady Jill Biden in West Virginia, didn’t speak during the meeting, but his colleagues described him as paying “riveted attention.”

Manchin hasn’t said whether he would vote to start debate on the bill, instead describing his conversations as “talking and negotiating.”

He also said that he’s not currently outlining any specific changes he wants to see in the sweeping bill, which he has previously warned would sow more division over accepting election results given the GOP opposition to the legislation.

“How can you do that when we’re still talking,” Manchin asked, reiterating that he was “learning, talking and they’re learning from me.”

Democrats say they expect they’ll need to make changes to the bill, including potentially paring it down, in order to shore up support from the other 49 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus while trying to win over Manchin.

“We have to be willing … to let go of pieces that can’t get the support of Democrats. Even if there’s one Democrat that’s adamantly against piece X, well we can’t go into this with 49 Democrats,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “But there’s so much in this bill that I know all 50 support.” 

Manchin also wants to pass a separate, narrower bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), to reauthorize and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. That bill received the support of only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), during the previous Congress.

Even if Democrats managed to get Manchin on board after weeks of public opposition to the For the People Act, they face a bigger fight over how to get the bill through the Senate.

To get either the For the People Act or the voting rights legislation passed, Democrats need to secure support from at least 10 Republicans or get every member of their conference behind nixing the filibuster.

Progressives have doubled down on their call to eliminate the Senate rule, which requires 60 votes for passing most legislation, in the wake of Republicans blocking a bill creating a commission to probe the Jan. 6 attack.

“The U.S. Senate is the only institution in the world where a vote of 59-41 can be considered a defeat instead of a huge victory. Enough is enough. Let us change the outdated rules of the Senate, end the filibuster and pass a bold agenda for working families with majority vote,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted this week.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) added on Wednesday that “our democracy is still under attack. WE MUST END THE FILIBUSTER TO SAVE IT.”

Some senators long viewed as wary of removing the filibuster, like Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), have signaled they would be willing to change the rules if Republicans stonewall voting rights legislation. But that still leaves Democrats like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Manchin, who are staunchly opposed to changing the Senate rule.

Manchin, while fuming at Republicans’ decision to filibuster the Jan. 6 commission, reiterated that he wouldn’t vote to change the procedural roadblock.

“I’m not separating our country, OK?” Manchin said. “I don’t know what you all don’t understand about this. You ask the same question every day. It’s wrong.”

And Sinema, speaking to reporters in Arizona on Tuesday, defended the filibuster in remarks that sparked fierce progressive ire on social media.

“The reality is that when you have a system that is not working effectively — and I would think that most would agree that the Senate is not a particularly well-oiled machine, right? The way to fix that is to fix your behavior, not to eliminate the rules or change the rules, but to change the behavior,” Sinema told reporters. 

Republicans are also adamantly opposed to the sweeping election bill, all but guaranteeing that it gets blocked on the floor when Schumer brings it up this month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doubled down Wednesday while speaking in Kentucky on his party’s opposition to the legislation.

“I don’t think any of these efforts at the state level are designed to suppress the vote based upon race,” he said. “What is going on is that Democrats are trying to convince the Senate that states are involved in trying to prevent people from voting in order to pass a total federal takeover of how we conduct elections.”

Tags Alex Padilla Angus King Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Donald Trump Election law Filibuster For the People Act Jill Biden Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Tim Kaine voting rights Voting Rights Act of 1965

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