Democrats are warning that they could box themselves out of winning Senate races in key states unless they change the legislative filibuster and pass voting rights and election reform legislation.
The fear boils down to a belief among Senate Democrats that unless they take federal action, changes being made by GOP-controlled state legislatures will make it harder for certain constituency groups to vote, which would make it harder for Democrats to win elections. That, in turn, would make it harder for Democrats to keep or win back control of the Senate in the future.
The argument has been made to Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinLawmaker arrested amid voting rights protest says he'd 'do it again' No Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaLawmaker arrested amid voting rights protest says he'd 'do it again' These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 No Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way MORE (D-Ariz.) as colleagues try to sway the two holdouts to support changing the 60-vote legislative filibuster without GOP support.
Unless Manchin and Sinema flip on the filibuster, Democrats will be unable to move their own voting rights measures.
“There are many colleagues who are making that comment about their own races. ... That’s certainly one of the factors,” Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Manchin, Sinema join GOP to sink filibuster change for voting bill Desperate Dems signal support for cutting Biden bill down in size MORE (D-Va.) told The Hill when asked if Democrats were making the case that they could lose reelection without voting legislation.
“These are being done only in Republican states where Republicans control all the levers ... so if it’s our voters that they’re targeting, then we ought to have some responsibility to stand up for those voters,” Kaine added.
Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Predictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure Voting rights and Senate wrongs MORE (D-N.Y.), speaking about changes to voting laws in various states during a recent interview with CNN, added that nearly every senator in the caucus had been lobbying Manchin and Sinema on voting rights, including “going up to them and saying, ‘I'll lose my election if ... you allow these changes to occur.’”
Schumer has vowed that he will force a vote on the legislative filibuster by Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Election experts have pointed to the timeline as a key cutoff point for getting federal election legislation passed by the start of the 2022 primaries and with enough time to survive likely legal challenges.
Tracking by the Brennan Center for Justice, which supports passing election legislation, found as of late last year that 19 state legislatures had passed 34 laws restricting access to voting in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, which former President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE has falsely claimed was “stolen.” That includes states that have at least one Democratic senator, such as Arizona and Georgia. Democratic governors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin vetoed attempts to change voting rules.
Democrats are defending seats in several of those battlegrounds in 2022, including Arizona and Georgia, where Sens. Mark KellyMark KellyThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Filibuster becomes new litmus test for Democrats Missouri Senate candidate says Congress members should go to jail if guilty of insider trading MORE and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race MORE, respectively, are on the ballot.
“The entire purpose of all the voter suppression bills ... is to keep people who likely vote Democratic from being able to vote, so the upshot of that would be there are fewer Democrats who would be elected,” said Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats, poised for filibuster defeat, pick at old wounds Schumer prepares for Senate floor showdown with Manchin, Sinema Dems worry they'll be boxed out without changes to filibuster, voting rules MORE (D-Hawaii).
“That is the whole point of what the Republicans are doing ... so there is of course a potential that we will lose both the House and the Senate,” Hirono added.
Democrats won their first trifecta in a decade when they took back the Senate and White House earlier this year, paired with a House majority they won in 2018. But Republicans are feeling bullish about their chances of winning the House given Biden’s approval ratings.
The Senate battlegroup is tighter, given the current 50-50 split of the chamber. That means either party needs a net gain of just one seat to take control, putting the onus on the importance of each battleground race.
Democrats also worry not passing voting rights legislation or other major priorities could hurt them in 2022 if it depresses turnout from their base.
Republicans have dismissed Democratic fears that the new state laws will make it harder to vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week Effort to overhaul archaic election law wins new momentum MORE (R-Ky.), speaking from the Senate floor, argued that Democrats were trying to “justify [a] top-down election takeover.”
“The Democratic leader is using fake hysteria, fake hysteria about 2021 state laws to justify a power grab he began floating actually back in 2019, and an election takeover that was first drafted in 2019,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
Schumer fired back at McConnell during a press conference on Tuesday, saying that “our argument is what they’re doing now is going to make 2022 a very unfair election.”
“The policies they have put forward have one purpose, one purpose only: making it harder for younger, poorer, nonwhite and typically Democratic voters to access the ballot. To give Republicans a partisan advantage at the polls by making it harder for Democratic voters to vote,” Schumer added during a Senate floor speech.
Democrats view passing voting and election legislation as crucial to American democracy as Trump’s claim that there was widespread election fraud — a claim dismissed by election experts, the courts and his attorney general William BarrBill BarrWilliam Barr's memoir set for release in early March The enemy within: Now every day is Jan. 6 Dems worry they'll be boxed out without changes to filibuster, voting rules MORE — has taken root with parts of the party.
They haven’t yet landed on a filibuster reform proposal as around-the-clock negotiations continue amongst the caucus. One option includes moving to a talking filibuster, where opponents could delay the bill for as long as they could hold the floor, but legislation would ultimately be able to pass with a simple majority. They are also mulling a carveout that would exempt voting rights legislation from needing 60 votes.
Democrats are also discussing smaller changes including shifting from needing 60 votes to break a filibuster to needing 41 votes to sustain it or getting rid of the 60-vote hurdle currently required for starting debate while keeping it in place for ending debate.
But Manchin and Sinema haven’t been moved. Manchin, asked about public pressure he’s getting from Schumer, noted that he understood where the Democratic leader was coming from and “this is a tough game.”
“Chuck has tried to be as fair as he could this whole year ... We did some great things,” Manchin said. “Right now they're coming down to crunch time and I understand ... the position they're in and what they're doing, but I think I've been very clear where I am, you know, so I hope they respect that too.”