Schumer sets September voting rights fight after GOP blocks quick debate

Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters outside the Senate Chamber following the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Tuesday, August 10, 2021.
Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is setting up a new voting rights and election reform fight for September after Republicans blocked quick action on a series of measures. 

Schumer, during an all-night session early Wednesday morning, teed up a Senate vote for mid-September on taking up the election debate. He’ll need 10 GOP votes to start debate, assuming every member of his caucus votes yes, likely dooming the new effort absent a significant, unexpected, shift from moderate Democrats on changing the chamber’s rules. 

“Voting rights, voting rights, will be the first matter of legislative business when the Senate returns to session in September. Our democracy demands no less,” Schumer said. 

Because Democrats are still negotiating on what a pared-down version of the For the People Act, a sweeping bill Republicans blocked earlier this year, would look like, Schumer effectively teed up a placeholder bill on Wednesday morning. 

A group of Democrats — including Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) — have been working behind the scenes to try to craft a narrower bill that could win over all 50 Democratic senators. The idea is that Democrats will have their new legislation worked out by the time they return to Washington, D.C., next month and could swap it in.  

“It is my intention that the first amendment to the bill would be the text of a compromise bill that a group of senators are working on. Let me be very clear, this is a debate the Senate must have,” Schumer said early Wednesday morning. 

Schumer added that Democrats were “going to fight to protect the sacred right to vote.” 

Negotiators say they are close to an agreement on a smaller bill, but have offered few details on what would be included in the new legislation. It’s expected to incorporate a framework offered by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who outlined for his colleagues earlier this year what he could and couldn’t support in an election reform bill. 

Manchin, speaking from the Senate floor early Wednesday morning, reiterated that he doesn’t support the For the People Act, which he has warned is too broad, without changes. 

“I have made it crystal clear that I do not support the For the People Act. Over the past few months, I have worked to eliminate the far-reaching aspects of that bill and amend the legislation to make sure our elections are fair, accessible and secure,” Manchin said. 

Manchin said that he would support “commonsense voter ID requirements” and didn’t support blocking “any guardrails” on voting by mail or preventing local election officials from doing “basic maintenance of voter rolls.”

The decision to force a vote in September comes after Republicans blocked Schumer from quickly taking up three bills early Wednesday morning. Schumer first tried to bring up the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that would overhaul federal elections, change the composition of the Federal Election Commission, place new rules on redistricting and new ethics rules on the president and vice president, among other provisions. 

Republicans are in lockstep opposition to the bill, which they blocked earlier this year. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Wednesday morning argued Schumer’s move was a repeat of the earlier fight. 

“Here we go again, colleagues. We’ve seen this once before. … Here in the dead of night, they also want to start tearing down the rules of our democracy and writing new ones, of course on a purely partisan basis,” McConnell said. 

Schumer also tried to bring up redistricting legislation and a separate bill on campaign donations.

The stalemate was largely telegraphed with Schumer trying to bring up the bills as most senators were bolting out of the Capitol after an hours-long session that capped off with Democrats passing a budget resolution that tees up their $3.5 trillion spending plan. 

Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah) were the only Republicans on hand as Schumer tried to bring the three bills up for debate. Cruz blocked all three bills. 

“This bill would constitute a federal government takeover of elections. It would constitute a massive power grab by Democrats,” Cruz said as he blocked Schumer from bringing up the For the People Act.

And Schumer blocked a competing bill from the Texas Republican, saying that it would “make a bad situation even worse.” 

Any one senator can make a request on a bill in the Senate, but any other lawmaker can block them. In many ways, forcing Republicans to block the bills was the point, with Democrats aware that they were unlikely to sign off. The Senate is leaving town until mid-September for a weeks-long recess. 

But Democrats are eager to show centrists in their caucus that Republicans will not help them pass sweeping voting and election changes that they believe are necessary as GOP-controlled state legislatures enact new voting laws. 

Without being able to win over 10 GOP senators, Democrats would need unity from all 50 of their members to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster and pass election bills through a simple majority. 

Schumer hasn’t explicitly endorsed nixing the filibuster but argued on Wednesday that Democrats should act even if they can’t get GOP support. 

“We have reached a point in this chamber where Republicans appear to oppose any measure, any measure, no matter how common sense to protect voting rights and strengthen our democracy,” Schumer said. 

“Republicans refusing to support anything on voting rights is not an excuse for Democrats to do nothing,” he added. 

But Democrats don’t have the votes to nix the legislative filibuster, dooming Schumer’s latest election push to the same failure in September that befell the For the People Act. 

Manchin in a recent CNN interview reiterated that he doesn’t support providing a carveout from the filibuster for voting rights. 

And Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), in an interview with “The View” last week, defended the 60-vote filibuster.

“Think a couple years down the road on what it looks like if you remove this tool, this protection for the minority, what happens when you’re the minority and that tool is no longer there to protect your rights,” she said.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Campaign finance Chuck Schumer For the People Act Gerrymandering Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema legislative filibuster Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Nuclear option Raphael Warnock Redistricting Ted Cruz Tim Kaine voting rights

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