Democrats make frantic last-ditch effort to change Senate rules

Senate Democrats are making a frantic, last-ditch effort to get a deal before the year ends to change the rules, with an eye toward unlocking a months-long stalemate on voting rights and election legislation. 

A group of Democrats leading the talks — Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the party — have met with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key hold out, several times this week as they try to get an agreement with their more conservative colleague. 

They also met with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday, per a source familiar, who then met with Democratic senators involved in voting rights negotiations. 

The flurry of meetings come as Democrats struggle to make progress on President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation and face the prospect that they could break for the end of the year with neither the spending bill or voting rights one completed. 

Schumer is facing pressure from within his own caucus to bring the rules fight and voting rights legislation to the forefront before the end of the year and before Democrats take up the climate and social spending bill.

“We’re having vigorous discussions about the path forward, which at this point would clearly need to include a rule change,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) about the voting rights discussions. 

Voting rights and making changes to the Senate’s rules are discussions that are connected. Republicans have blocked several voting and election reform bills, arguing that they would be an overreach that would federalize elections. 

To get their legislation through the Senate, Democrats would need to nix or modify the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most legislation. 

Both Kaine and Tester say that they didn’t yet have a deal with Manchin, but thought that they were making progress. 

“When there’s an agreement, you’ll know about it,” Kaine said.

Tester added that the talk “hasn’t borne fruit yet, but I think it’s gonna.”

“I think that could … happen before we leave, but we’ll see,” Tester said. 

Democrats have floated a range of ideas including requiring 41 “no” votes instead of 60 “yes” votes, creating a carve out for certain issues or reverting to a “talking filibuster.”

Tester pointed to the talking filibuster, which would nix the 60-vote requirement but allow opponents to delay or obstruct a bill by talking from the Senate floor, as his preferred outcome. 

“I think right now what we’re talking about is restoring the talking filibuster and restoring the Senate back to the good old days when one person couldn’t have veto power,” he said.

But Tester stressed that he could not speak for what other members of the negotiating team or Manchin preferred. 

“There’s not an agreement. That’s me,” he said, asked about the talking filibuster. 

There’s no guarantee this year that Democrats will be able to get a deal on rule changes to unlock voting rights legislation.

Manchin has been in talks with both Republicans and Democrats about changes to the Senate rules. 

A bipartisan group, during a meeting with Manchin this week, floated several ideas including getting rid of the 60-vote hurdle to start debate on a bill and how to get a guarantee for amendment votes. That would still leave the 60-vote hurdle for needing to end debate on a bill before it can pass.

Manchin declined to answer questions about the Senate rules as he headed to a vote on Friday afternoon. A spokesperson for Manchin also declined to comment. 

Manchin caught the attention of voting rights activists this week when asked about a carve-out for voting rights, an idea he has previously opposed. He told reporters, “We’re talking about that. Talking about everything, the rules.”

But to get rules change legislation through the Senate, Democrats would either need 67 votes—including the support of 17 GOP senators—or the support of all 50 members of the Democratic caucus to agree to deploy the “nuclear option.” 

No Republicans are expected to support getting rid of the 60-vote hurdle needed to end debate. But Manchin has also been long opposed to using the nuclear option and has talked this week about how he wants a rules change to be bipartisan. 

“All of my discussions have been with bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats. The rules change should be done to be where we all have input in this rules change because we’re going to have to live with it,” Manchin said. 

But Democrats negotiating with Manchin don’t view his stance as at odds with him ultimately agreeing to deploy the “nuclear option” to make changes to the 60-vote legislative filibuster. 

“It’s all within how can we make the Senate work better without abolishing the filibuster. … We have to do a rules reform, make the place work better without abolishing the filibuster. There are paths to do that,” Kaine said. 

Kaine added that he didn’t believe that Manchin was insisting that rules changes be approved with GOP votes. 

“He wants to restore the Senate. … So he wants the proposals to include things that both sides have complained about or suggested,” Kaine said. “But we don’t have illusions that Republicans are going to join us. But if we get there, I think there will be things in there that Republicans have asked for for years.”

Tags Angus King Charles Schumer Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Raphael Warnock Tim Kaine

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