Democrats ramp up filibuster talks after voting rights setback

Democrats are ramping up their discussions about changing the Senate’s rules amid growing frustration about the inability to move voting rights legislation.  

After months of trying to give space for bipartisan discussions on election legislation, Democrats are planning internal talks about what, if any, rules changes they’ll be able to get through on their own. Those ideas include smaller shifts on nominations or amendments. But altering the filibuster — particularly when it comes to elections bills — is getting the most attention. 

A group of Democratic senators have been tasked with leading the talks and feeling out their colleagues on how to “restore” the Senate. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the group, said that “a bunch of us are having discussions” about “next steps,” including how to get voting rights through the Senate this month or next month.  

“We want to find a path to success on voting rights and so we have to talk about the way to do that,” Kaine added. 

The decision to lean into the talks comes after Republicans blocked legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would expand and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The setback, while predictable, poured fresh salt into the wounds of a growing number of Democratic senators and outside groups, who are chomping at the bit to change the rules, at least for voting rights. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been in listening mode on potential reform ideas, but hasn’t publicly weighed in on what to do about the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.  

“We’ve had a couple of discussions about it. I think that’s an option,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) about filibuster reform, which he supports. “I’m not sure that Sen. Schumer has yet articulated what that change of rules would actually look like. He’s listened to a lot of us but I don’t think he’s articulated that.”  

But, in a significant shift, Schumer said multiple times this week that Democrats are exploring “alternate paths” to how to pass voting rights legislation without needing the 10 GOP votes required to break a filibuster.  

“Democrats will explore alternative paths to restore the Senate so it does what its framers intended: debate, deliberate, compromise, and vote,” Schumer said Thursday. 

Kaine and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine) met with Schumer this week to discuss voting rights and potential rules reforms.  

Schumer, according to a senior Democratic aide, strategized with the group of moderates to have discussions with other members of the caucus about “specific ways to ‘restore the Senate’ and find a path forward on voting rights legislation given the resolute Republican obstruction.” 

Tester said that they talked about “voting reform” and that “generally we need to socialize some of the ideas” about what it would take to get it through the Senate. 

In addition to Kaine, King and Tester, Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.),as well as Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), are expected to spearhead the conversations within the caucus about ways to get voting rights through the Senate and potential Senate rules changes.  

Progressives and outside groups have been trying to build pressure on Senate Democrats to change the legislative filibuster since they came into power in January, when Democrats took back control of the Senate and President Biden entered the White House.  

The legislative filibuster is a buzz saw for several Democratic priorities including minimum wage, gun control, expansive immigration reform and police reform.

“The filibuster is in place to stop all the kinds of voting rights protections so many of the other rights that we want to protect, so as far as I’m concerned we should get rid of the entire filibuster,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). 

Hirono, asked about a caucus discussion on the rule, described it as being “in the air,” before adding: “The discussion, not necessarily the resolution the way I’d like to see it resolved.” 

But it’s voting rights and a showdown last month over the debt ceiling that have driven Democratic support for a potential rules change. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is a close ally of Biden, became the latest senator this week to back nixing the filibuster for voting rights. 

“I do not come to this decision lightly, but it has become clear to me that if the filibuster is standing in the way of protecting our democracy then the filibuster isn’t working for our democracy. … No barrier – not even the filibuster – should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy,” Carper said in a statement.  

Biden had previously endorsed moving back to a talking filibuster but opened the door wider to filibuster reform during a CNN town hall late last month, saying that he was “open to fundamentally altering” the legislative filibuster including on voting rights and “maybe more.”  

Democratic and outside groups involved in the discussions have floated a range of potential changes for filibuster reform including passing a carve-out for specific issues; changing the requirement from supporters needing to get 60 votes to the opposition needing to put up 41 votes; and the idea of a talking filibuster including limits on how many times a senator can speak, though there’s been confusion within the caucus about how that would work, including what that would mean for the 60-vote threshold. 

Senate Democrats are also discussing smaller rules change ideas including streamlining nominations, changing the 60-vote hurdle currently needed to start debate on a bill or offering deals on guaranteed amendment votes in exchange for allowing bills to come up for debate. A bipartisan group of senators previously discussed several of the same ideas, but were unable to get an agreement. 

“We all have ideas or thoughts on how to change or do things,” Merkley said. “We all want to make our case but we don’t get to do it anymore.”

Kaine acknowledged the smaller changes weren’t directly related to voting rights but fit under a broader “restore the Senate” umbrella that is a part of Democrats’ discussions. 

“It’s all part of restoring the Senate to working well, and trying to think about this in a ‘like we’re in the majority but we could be in the minority too.’ So we’re trying to look at rules that would stand a stress test for either position,” he said. 

Even as Democrats are planning to increase their discussions about potential rules changes they face similar roadblocks that have prevented them from deploying the nuclear option for months: math. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both said they are opposed to nixing the legislative filibuster and Manchin has specifically said he doesn’t support the idea of a carve-out for specific issues. 

Asked about the discussions Schumer is having on potential changes to the Senate rules, Manchin said that he was “not at all” involved in those discussions.  

But Democratic senators have been trying to feel Manchin out and bounce ideas off of him on potential rules changes for months, with Manchin previously crediting Merkley, who has been pushing for rules reforms for years, for being a sounding board. 

Kaine, who has also had discussions with Manchin, approached him after the failed voting rights vote this week to say that they should keep looking for how they could get a bill through the Senate, according to Manchin. 

“Tim Kaine comes in and says ‘good work on this’ on the election bill,” Manchin said during an interview with CNN’s “New Day” describing the conversation. ” ‘Good work on that, let’s work some more on this.’ “

Tags Alex Padilla Amy Klobuchar Angus King Ben Cardin Chuck Schumer Filibuster Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema Mazie Hirono Raphael Warnock Tim Kaine Tom Carper

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