Lacking the votes to change the filibuster rules that have stalled their sweeping voting rights legislation, Senate Democrats are pushing ahead with a new strategy that would utilize an unusual loophole maneuver to open debate on the bills.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer outlined the plan in a memo obtained by the Associated Press and others on Wednesday, on the eve of Joe Biden’s visit to meet privately with Senate Democrats about the path forward.
In the memo, Schumer detailed a strategy wherein the House would amend an unrelated bill about Nasa to include provisions from two stalled voting reform bills: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. After passing that bill, which they are calling a “shell” bill, the Democrats would swiftly send it to the Senate, where Democrats could start debate on it with a simple majority.
This strategy would allow Democrats to evade an initial filibuster from Republicans seeking to block debate on the bill. Senate filibuster rules currently require 60 votes to advance legislation in most cases.
Schumer’s maneuvering wouldn’t ultimately resolve the fact in an evenly split Senate, Republicans could still use the filibuster to block a final vote on passing the legislation, nor does it resolve the fact that two key senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, remain opposed to amending the filibuster.
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 Manchin and Sinema to go along with the changes.
“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. “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.”
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”.
The move comes amid a significant week for the party’s push for voting rights. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris traveled to Georgia this week to speak out in support of the legislation. In a fiery speech, Biden called for changes to the filibuster and told senators they would each be “judged by history” if they failed to act.
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.
Schumer had set the Martin Luther King Jr holiday, on 17 January, as a deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the filibuster rules. It’s unclear if a vote on rule changes will still happen.
Possibilities include setting a requirement that 41 senators be present in the chamber to sustain a filibuster.
Manchin threw cold water on the hopes Tuesday, saying he believes any changes should be made with substantial Republican buy-in. And there aren’t any Republican senators willing to sign on.