Democrats made a full-throated push for voting rights legislation on Sunday as the Senate prepares to take up election reform this week, setting the scene for a high-stakes battle after two centrist Democrats announced last week that they will not support a rules change to approve voting rights reform amid GOP opposition.
The Senate is slated to begin consideration of a House-passed voting rights bill on Tuesday. Republicans are expected to block the bill itself, leading Democrats into uncharted territory where they will be forced to face intraparty differences regarding the legislative filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to hold a vote on changing the rules to the 60-vote legislative filibuster if Republicans again oppose voting rights reform, but that threat was muddied last week after Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said they support the legislative hurdle and will not move to change it for election reform. All 50 Democratic senators are needed to alter chamber rules.
The likely chain of events will leave Democratic leadership grappling with how to move forward on one of the party’s marquee issues ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, with Republicans appearing poised to take control of both chambers of a closely split Congress.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that while election reform bills “may be on life support,” they are not yet dead. He said the party is “not giving up” in its fight for election reform, which has gone on for months without bearing any victories.
Clyburn told Greta Van Susteren in an interview that aired Sunday that he is worried about losing the House in November, which is why he is “fighting as hard as I can for this voting rights bill.” He said the U.S. is “teetering on the edge of losing this democracy.”
During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the majority whip encouraged that votes be held in the Senate on the legislation itself and on changing Senate rules, despite the reality that both referendums will likely fail because of Republicans, Manchin and Sinema.
Asked during the interview if holding a vote on changing the filibuster will shine a light on Democratic disunity, Clyburn said that reality is always a threat before emphasizing the significance of getting members on the record.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sounded a similar note on Sunday, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” that senators “have to be recorded at this moment in time about where are we in protecting the right to vote.”
He called voting rights “an existential issue.”
President Biden struck a comparable tone during a voting rights speech in Georgia last week when he called for changing the legislative filibuster to pass voting rights. He has since faced criticism among Republicans and even some Democrats for going too far in likening the current voting rights battle to a moment of historical significance, asking if elected officials wanted to be on the side of civil rights icons or segregationist figures.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) knocked Biden on Sunday for that rhetoric in Georgia, claiming that the president made untrue statements and questioning how such comments will help unite the country.
Clyburn, however, said he “wholeheartedly” supports the president’s speech.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also knocked the administration on Sunday, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the White House never reached out to him regarding voting rights negotiations. He said he would be willing to work with the White House on such an initiative.
Kaine, however, had a different recollection, telling “Face the Nation” that he has found “zero support” for voting rights in the Republican Party other than from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) who was a co-sponsor on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
One area of compromise could come in form of changes to the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 statute that outlines how Congress tallies the Electoral College vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) previously said the topic is “worth discussing,” and Clyburn on Sunday said the effort is “absolutely” worth pursuing.
Regardless of the way forward, Democrats are poised to face their election reform stalemate head on during a symbolic week as Americans on Monday recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which honors a man who lost his life more than 50 years ago fighting for voting rights for African Americans.