After months of build-up, Democrats are boxed in on their party’s signature election reform plan. And there’s no apparent escape route.
Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ sweeping ethics and elections legislation on Tuesday, a filibuster that many in President Joe Biden’s party hoped would turbocharge the demise of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for most bills. But Democratic moderates’ support of the filibuster has only hardened in recent days, culminating in an emphatic defense of the supermajority requirement by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on the eve of Tuesday’s vote.
Liberals eager to change the minds of Sinema, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and nearly a dozen other senators reluctant to eliminate or reform the filibuster had staked their success on a series of Republican blockades on former President Donald Trump’s impeachment, a Jan. 6 commission, equal pay standards and most notably, the elections bill dubbed “S1.”
In today’s 50-50 Senate, Democrats would need every single one of their members to vote in favor of any changes to the rules, and there is no sign that’s close to happening.
It gets worse for Biden’s party: Now that the GOP has rejected debating the legislation that would overhaul federal elections, Democrats are without a new strategy to show party activists some momentum before the 2022 midterms. At the moment, the party doesn’t have a backup plan on elections and Democratic senators acknowledged their internal maneuvering over the filibuster has only begun after months of dominating their time in control of Washington.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of a path to getting any Republican votes on voting reforms. So what does that leave?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It leaves a conversation in the caucus about whether you want to give Republicans the authority to continue to strip away from people the right to vote.”
Democratic leaders have told members that Tuesday’s vote is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end. And some Senate Democrats took it as a positive sign that all 50 members of the caucus — including Manchin — were united in Tuesday’s vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not detail next steps during Tuesday’s private caucus meeting, according to an attendee. But later on the floor, he said that Democrats will “have several, serious options for how to reconsider this issue" and "are going to explore every last one.”
Many in his caucus are desperate to find a path forward. “A body that won’t defend itself from an internal attack hardly deserves the name of a U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “No consequences for Trump, no impeachment, no censure, no January 6 commission … no agreement on voting rights.”
Potential backup plans after the filibuster include breaking up the elections bill into pieces to force more votes on the GOP or waiting until the fall to push a voting-rights-specific bill. Democrats could also put elections spending in a party-line budget reconciliation bill.
But on Tuesday evening success looked far off, even as Democrats vowed not to give up after Schumer promised that “failure is not an option.” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters that “the fight is not over.”
In the meantime, the Senate is left with a handful of bipartisan gangs negotiating critical legislation on infrastructure and policing — and a lot of angry progressives who want to exercise their party’s power while they still have full control of Congress.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was among those perplexed by Sinema’s latest defense of minority-party rights in the chamber. While Sinema said the “filibuster compels moderation,” Warren argues that “the filibuster as it’s currently used is giving Republicans a veto.”
“We’re talking about voting, which is a fundamental right, and the friction between rights and a rule that’s not even in the Constitution,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “I would hope we would at least consider a rifle shot here of dealing specifically with voting rights and the fact that those should be inviolate.”
Progressives had long viewed the elections bill as the vehicle for Democrats to scrap the legislative filibuster. But Republicans didn’t block a bill this Congress until May 28, instead working with Democrats on water infrastructure, a new hate crimes law and competitiveness legislation. With that in mind, Democratic moderates on Tuesday suggested that despite the GOP blockade on elections legislation, they still aren’t prepared to kill the filibuster.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) demurred when asked if his mind has changed, while Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) predicted that the conversation surrounding the filibuster “will pick up speed.”
"When you talk about something again and again and again in a hypothetical sense, it’s never the same as when you’re actually talking about it and the reality’s upon you,” Hickenlooper said after the vote.
But with such stern opposition from Manchin and Sinema to touching the filibuster rules, it doesn’t appear there’s much incentive for other members of the Democratic caucus to begin calling for easing or elimination of the 60-vote requirement. Sinema has asked for a Senate debate on the legislative filibuster and members of the caucus say the party is likely to have one, albeit internally.
Some Democrats, Manchin included, aren’t going to give up on trying to round up Republican votes for elections legislation. Thus far, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is endorsing a voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and said she supports expanding early and absentee voting as well.
Democrats are skeptical that much will come of that.
“Sen. Manchin and several other members of the caucus want to earnestly try to engage Republicans to say: Is there no way that we can work together on voting rights?” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to many Senate Republicans. “I do not see a serious interest or enthusiasm in improving access to the ballot among Republicans.”
Democrats need nine more Republicans to join Murkowski. And GOP leaders say their members are cool to doing so.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has panned a slimmed-down elections bill sought by Manchin. And even more modest reforms are likely to meet the same fate that Democrats’ sweeping bill met on Tuesday.
“I don’t think there’s anything I’ve seen yet that doesn’t fundamentally change the way states conduct elections. It’s sort of a line in the sand for most of our members,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced that her next step will include field hearings on elections laws, starting in Georgia. Schumer also vowed Tuesday that Democrats would bring up the issue for debate again.
“We will not let it go,” he said. “This voter suppression cannot stand. And we are going to work tirelessly to see that it does not stand.”