Democrats barrel toward August voting rights deadline

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.)
Greg Nash

Congressional Democrats are barreling toward a self-imposed August deadline to pass voting rights legislation while struggling to figure out how to break a months-long stalemate.

Democrats have long argued that legislation must be passed by August in order to counteract new state-level election laws, but they appear poised to fall short with the House out until September and lawmakers facing roadblocks to getting a bill through the Senate.

As they try to find a way to unite their caucus, Senate Democrats are prepping a new voting rights measure.

“We are very close to getting a bill done where everyone in the Democratic caucus will sign on,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said at a rally on Tuesday hosted by advocates pushing for voting rights to be passed before the Senate leaves on a weeks-long break.

Klobuchar and Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are among a group of Democrats who are negotiating a scaled-back voting rights bill after Republicans blocked a sweeping package, known as the For the People Act, earlier this year.

“We’ve been making good progress. They’re telling me that everyone seems to be in agreement,” Manchin said. “We’ve all agreed, I think, to come down to the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), would expand and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

But the bill is substantially narrower than the For the People Act, a top priority for progressives. In addition to setting national voting standards, the For the People Act would change the composition of the Federal Election Commission, add new restrictions on congressional redistricting, overhaul campaign finances and include new ethics rules for the president and vice president.

Klobuchar, during a recent conference call, indicated that the bill, at that time, would be a narrower version of the For the People Act and that the forthcoming measure would include gerrymandering reform, automatic voter registration and other Democratic priorities.

The behind-the-scenes haggling comes as Democrats are trying to keep the issue alive after Republicans blocked them from starting debate on the For the People Act, pouring fuel onto calls for Democrats to nix the legislative filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with President Biden and Vice President Harris at the White House last week to discuss voting rights.

“Recognizing the challenges ahead, the four leaders agreed on the importance of advancing legislation reflecting the priorities and values of those two bills, having them pass the House of Representatives and the Senate, and withstand constitutional challenge,” the White House said in a readout of the meeting, adding that the participants agreed on the “moral imperative of passing legislation.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment on the deal being worked on by Senate Democrats, only telling reporters that they were “certainly grateful” for Klobuchar’s work. Once the group releases the details, Psaki added, “I’m sure we’ll have more to say.”

Voting rights advocates see this month as a key deadline for passing legislation since in mid-August the Census Bureau will release its congressional mapping data to states, a key step in the redistricting process. Advocates fear that Democrats will be boxed out in key states once those maps are drawn.

“The longer it takes to pass federal legislation, the harder it will be to fully implement its reforms,” Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, warned in a Washington Post op-ed this week.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who spearheaded the For the People Act, told The Hill that the “clock is incredibly important with the distribution of the data for redistricting.”

“It’s really important if we’re going to have a fair redistricting process we need to pass the bill,” he said Tuesday.

Schumer has also pointed to August as a key deadline, saying during an April interview that Democrats were “consulting the experts, when is the latest that [the For the People Act] can undo some of the despicable and frankly racist changes that these Republican legislatures have made or trying to make in the way people vote.”

But Democrats are now focused on trying to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget resolution that tees up a separate $3.5 trillion bill before the weeks-long August break. Schumer has given no indication that he is planning to squeeze in another voting rights measure before senators leave, and his office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Still, two Democratic senators suggested that Schumer was leaving the door open in case his caucus has a breakthrough on the For the People Act, also known by its bill number, S. 1.

“What I’ve heard is that they want some aspects of not voting rights but S. 1, and I think Schumer has still held out that possibility,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Schumer’s No. 2, adding that it “could” come up before the August break.

Democrats are under growing pressure to try to pass voting rights before they leave town until September, despite a slew of headaches to get such a bill through Congress.

A group of senators, including Klobuchar, rallied near the Capitol with state lawmakers and advocacy groups on Tuesday to try to build support for quickly passing voting and election reform legislation. The rally was organized by the Declaration for American Democracy, which has led a coalition of groups to call for the August recess to be delayed until a voting rights bill gets passed.

“We need to stay here as long as it takes to pass voting rights. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We must build our country’s infrastructure — America needs a home improvement project — but we must also protect and repair the infrastructure of our democracy,” Warnock said.

Getting a voting rights or election reform bill through the Senate however, faces the same problem it has for months: math.

To get a bill through the Senate, Democrats would need either 60 votes, including the support of 10 Republicans, total unity from all 50 members of their own caucus to nix the legislative filibuster or to make a carveout for voting rights legislation.

Durbin, asked about the math problem, suggested Democrats were looking into it.

“That’s the question, whether he does,” Durbin said, referring to Schumer.

But Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are dug in against getting rid of the filibuster. And Manchin reiterated during a recent interview a position that he’s held for months: that he wouldn’t support the smaller carveout being pushed for by advocates and some House lawmakers.

“I can’t imagine a carveout,” Manchin told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I was here in 2013 when it was called a carveout. We’re just going to do the Cabinet for the president, and then it went into, we’re going to do the judges who are lifetime appointments for circuit and district.”

Merkley, asked about the possibility of a quick vote, suggested that he hoped it could happen but that it was just that — a hope.

“I hope that we have some kind of debate before we leave, but that’s just my hope,” he said. “My personal hope.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar census data Charles Schumer congressional district maps Dick Durbin election reform For the People Act Jake Tapper Jeff Merkley Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Raphael Warnock Redistricting voting rights

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