Democrats under new pressure to break voting rights stalemate

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) addresses reporters during the last of the vote of the day on June 24
Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are getting squeezed by members of their own party to pass voting rights legislation, amid growing frustration that GOP-led states are moving forward with their own laws.

Congressional Democrats have signaled alarm over state-level measures like the one in Texas, warning they could threaten the underpinnings of democracy as former President Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” reverberates among Republican voters.

But a sweeping voting rights bill remains stalled in the Senate roughly three weeks after Republicans blocked the legislation from advancing.

Now, a coalition of external forces — other members of Congress, outside groups and Texas legislators who fled to Washington, D.C., to prevent a vote on a GOP voting bill — is trying to break that stalemate, viewing the next few weeks as a crucial period for preventing changes at the state level that they fear will impose new restrictions on key constituencies.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) told The Hill that “there are some Democratic members of the Senate who don’t share” the idea that voting rights should take priority.

He said he’s hoping the newly arrived Texas state lawmakers will “be able to energize members of the Senate.”

Doggett joined Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) to hold a press conference Tuesday with Texas state Democrats, who met with Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), to try to build support for a carve out to the Senate filibuster rule for voting legislation.

Veasey referenced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett in arguing for changing the filibuster rules in this instance.

“If Mitch McConnell did a carve out for Amy Coney Barrett then we ought to do a carve out for the Black and brown people that live in Texas and that live in Georgia, that live in Florida, that live in all these states that are trying to make it harder for our constituents to exercise their right to vote,” Veasey said, in an apparent reference to Republicans getting rid of the 60-vote filibuster for Supreme Court justices in 2017 to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Chris Turner, Texas House Democratic caucus chair, said he and his state Democratic colleagues were on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers to try to “drill down on the importance of … a carve out on the filibuster in respect to voting rights.”

Texas Democrats have garnered national headlines for their efforts to prevent Republicans from passing new election laws, with many fleeing the state. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has warned they will be arrested when they return to Texas.

Senate Republicans panned the tactic by Texas Democrats and Senate Democrats for lauding them even as most of the Democratic caucus is supportive of getting rid of the filibuster, which allows the minority party to block a bill.

“I noticed that the Democratic minority in the Texas legislature is up here today, and I think it’s quite interesting to see the Democratic majority in the Senate concerned about minority rights in the state Senate in Texas. I guess if you live long enough, you’ll see almost anything around here,” McConnell said.

But the Capitol barnstorming comes after top Biden allies have pushed for Democrats to change the Senate rules, ramping up their public pressure. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), credited within the party for helping President Biden win the White House, has called for the president to back a carve out from the filibuster for legislation related to the Constitution.

Biden, in a closely watched speech, highlighted the need for voting rights legislation, though he sparked progressive fury by not specifically calling for changes to or nixing the legislative filibuster that requires 60 votes for most bills.

“The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real,” Biden said in Philadelphia. “It’s unrelenting. And we’re going to challenge it vigorously.”

Biden added that it was a “national imperative” for Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Progressives seized on the speech to pour new fuel onto calls for the Senate to eliminate the filibuster and pass new election laws.

“It’s time for the president and the Senate to do their jobs — use the power of their offices to end the Jim Crow filibuster and change the law to protect voting rights,” said Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Just Democracy.

Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, added that Biden needs to “make clear that the Senate minority’s use of the filibuster — a Jim Crow relic, in the words of former President Obama — must never stand in the way of the freedom to vote.”

Democrats are trying to raise public awareness over the voting rights fight.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee is holding a hearing this week on the Voting Rights Act and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Rules Committee, will hold a hearing next week in Georgia, which has emerged as a battleground for election law changes, on voting and elections.

“The bottom line is this: Democrats will not stop fighting to protect voting rights and defend our democracy. As I said, the vote in June was the opening gun, not the finish line,” Schumer said from the Senate floor Tuesday.

But Senate Democrats are struggling to find a path forward on voting rights after Republicans prevented the For the People Act from being brought up for debate.

Schumer has left the door open to bringing the bill back up for a vote. But neither that bill nor legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to strengthen the Voting Rights Act has the 60 votes needed to overcome the Senate filibuster.

Without 10 GOP votes, Democrats would need all 50 of their members to get behind changing or nixing the legislative filibuster. Both Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are opposed to getting rid of the Senate rule, and others are viewed as wary.

Schumer has characterized voting rights as a top priority, but he also hasn’t publicly backed changes to the filibuster.

“Everything is on the table,” Schumer told reporters, asked if he could support a carve out for voting rights.

The debate in the Senate is also getting overshadowed by infrastructure, as Democrats scramble to pass both a bipartisan deal and a budget resolution that paves the way for passing a second bill under reconciliation in a matter of weeks. 

Though outside groups believe it is crucial for Congress to pass voting rights legislation before they leave for the August recess — a timeline previously backed by Schumer — Democrats also acknowledge they are stretched thin.

“It feels hard to figure out how you would change the rules of the Senate this month,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

“I remain committed to it. I think our democracy will wither and die if we continue to give the minority this amount of power,” he added. “I just see what’s on the path for the next three weeks and I’m skeptical.” 

Alex Bolton and Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Donald Trump election laws Filibuster For the People Act Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Lloyd Doggett Marc Veasey Mitch McConnell Neil Gorsuch Texas voting rights

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