WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats are trying to force a public showdown over their sweeping elections legislation, aiming to launch debate on a key party priority even though there’s no assurance the bill will come to a vote.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer outlined the plan in a memo obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, on the eve of President Joe Biden's visit to meet privately with Senate Democrats about the path forward. It still leaves the Democrats in need of a way to force a vote on the legislation, now blocked by a Republican filibuster.
“We will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation — something that Republicans have thus far denied,” Schumer wrote in the memo to his Democratic colleagues, which described a workaround to avoid a Republican filibuster that for months has blocked formal debate over the legislation on the Senate floor. “Senators can finally make clear to the American people where they stand on protecting our democracy and preserving the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot.”
The strategy does little to resolve the central problem Democrats face — they lack Republican support to pass the elections legislation on a bipartisan basis, but also don't have support from all 50 Democrats for changing the Senate rules to allow passage on their own. But the latest tactic could create an off-ramp from their initial approach, which was to force a vote by Monday on Senate filibuster changes as a way to pressure Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to go along.
By setting up a debate, Schumer will achieve the Democrats' goal of shining a spotlight that spurs senators to say where they stand. The floor debate could stretch for days and carry echoes of civil rights battles a generation ago that led to some of the most famous filibusters in Senate history.
“I wouldn’t want to delude anybody into thinking this is easy,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. He called the push an “uphill fight.”
Democrats have vowed to counteract a wave of new state laws, inspired by Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen election, that have made it harder to vote. But after an initial flurry of activity, the Democrats' efforts have stalled in the narrowly divided Senate, where they lack the 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, leading to their calls for a rule change.
Recently they have tried to breathe new life into the effort. Biden gave a fiery speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, where he told senators they would each be “judged by history” if they failed to act. He is to meet with Democratic senators at the Capitol on Thursday in a bid to jolt the effort forward.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell gave a scathing rebuttal to Biden’s speech Wednesday, objecting to his comparison of opponents of the voting legislation to racist historical figures, including George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who ran for the presidency, and Jefferson Davis, who was the president of the Confederacy.
“You could not invent a better advertisement for the legislative filibuster than what we’ve just seen: a president abandoning rational persuasion for pure demagoguery,” McConnell, R-Ky., said from the Senate floor. “A president shouting that 52 senators and millions of Americans are racist unless he gets whatever he wants is proving exactly why the framers built the Senate to check his power. “
Asked Wednesday for a response to McConnell's comments, Biden turned, removed his black mask and said: “I like Mitch McConnell. He’s a friend.” That response came during Biden's trip to the Capitol to pay his respects to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who died last month and was lying in state in the Rotunda.
Republicans are nearly unanimous in opposing the voting legislation, viewing it as federal overreach that would infringe on states' abilities to conduct their own elections. And they’ve pointed out that Democrats opposed changes to the filibuster that Trump sought when he was president.
For Democrats and Biden, the legislation is a political imperative. Failure to pass it would break a major campaign promise to Black voters, who helped hand Democrats control of the White House and Congress, and would come just before midterm elections when slim Democratic majorities will be on the line. It would also be the second major setback for Biden's agenda in a month, after Manchin halted work on the president's $2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives shortly before Christmas.
The current package of voting and ethics legislation would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation, striking down hurdles to voting enacted in the name of election security, reducing the influence of big money in politics and limiting partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts. The package would create national election standards that would trump the state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the ability of the Justice Department to police election laws in states with a history of discrimination.
Many civil rights activists think Biden's push on voting rights is too-little-too-late in aggressively going after GOP-backed changes in state voting laws, which they view as a subtler form of ballot restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes once used to disenfranchise Black voters. Some boycotted Biden's speech in Atlanta on Tuesday.
The New Georgia Project, a group founded by Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, was among those that called on Biden to skip the speech.
“We’ve heard rhetoric like this before," the group said in a statement. “A goal without a plan is just a wish."
Schumer had set the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, on Jan. 17, as a deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the filibuster rules. It's unclear if the planned vote on rule changes will still happen.
Manchin, who played a major role writing Democrats' voting legislation, threw cold water on the hopes Tuesday, saying any changes should be made with substantial Republican buy-in — even though there aren’t any Republican senators willing to sign on.
That befuddled South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Clyburn questioned the wisdom of reflexively seeking bipartisanship, noting that the right to vote was granted to newly freed slaves on a party-line vote.
“He seems to be supporting a filibuster of his own bill," Clyburn said of Manchin. “That, to us, is very disconcerting.”
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed.