Senate plows ahead on voting rights push with no clear outcome

By Nolan D. McCaskill

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday was barreling toward a showdown on voting rights legislation and rules changes, even as Democratic leaders conceded they don’t yet have the numbers to pass any bills or change the rules to circumvent a GOP filibuster.

“We’re not there yet,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday morning. “I wouldn’t want to delude anybody into thinking this is easy, but we’re trying to come to a place where 50 senators can support two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Act, and with a change in the rules so we can get the votes to pass these bills into law.”

In a letter to colleagues earlier this month, Schumer vowed the chamber would debate and consider changes to Senate rules by Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, if Republicans refused to work with Democrats on voting rights legislation. Senate Republicans have dismissed Democrats’ proposals as a federal takeover of elections.

Republican-led state legislatures across the country have enacted new voting laws in the wake of the 2020 election that make it more difficult to cast a ballot. Republicans argue the so-called “voter integrity” policies, like requiring voter identification to cast a ballot and limiting drop boxes, are intended to restore faith in elections after President Trump falsely claimed widespread voter fraud.

Democrats have described the GOP policies as voter suppression and “Jim Crow 2.0,” noting that many of the new laws disproportionately affect people who tend to vote Democrat, such as young voters, people of color and people with disabilities.

To combat the new legislation in the states, congressional Democrats are eyeing two voting rights bills. The first, the Freedom to Vote Act, would expand voter registration with automatic and same-day registration, and increase access to the polls by expanding early and absentee voting. It would also make election day a federal holiday and includes additional provisions on congressional redistricting and campaign finance.

The other measure, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named after the late civil rights icon — would create new criteria for determining which states must receive preapproval from the Justice Department or U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before making laws that would affect voting rights. The measure also includes protections for election workers, polling places and election infrastructure.

President Joe Biden, in a speech delivered in Atlanta on Tuesday, endorsed Senate Democrats reforming the filibuster. He warned that history would not look kindly on those who voted against voting rights legislation.

“I ask every elected official in America: Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden said. “The side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? The side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

House Democrats, who passed the Lewis bill in August, cheered the president’s forceful address. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned that the nation is facing “the most dangerous assault on the vote since Jim Crow.”

“The need to protect our democracy could not be more urgent,” she said in a statement. “Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.”

Given Senate Republicans’ overwhelming opposition, however, Senate Democrats can’t pass either bill without changing rules that currently require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and pass most legislation. Senate Democratic and Republican leaders have already eliminated the filibuster for judicial and Supreme Court nominations.

But Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have so far resisted efforts to abandon the filibuster for legislation.

Manchin acknowledged Tuesday that “to make this place work better, we do need some rules changes.” He told reporters this week that the motion to proceed, a procedural vote in the Senate to determine whether to open debate on a bill, should be a simple majority instead of 60 votes.

He also signaled an openness to a so-called talking filibuster, which would require opponents of a bill to continually speak in order to block it, or a rule that would require only three-fifths of members actually present during a vote to overcome a filibuster, rather than the current fixed 60 votes.

“To break the opportunity for the minority to participate completely, that’s just not who we are,” Manchin said. “I’m not for breaking the filibuster. But I am for making the place work better by changing the rules.”

A group of Democrats met with Sinema for 2 1/2 hours Tuesday night, according to Schumer, and Schumer joined that same group in an hourlong meeting with Manchin on Wednesday morning.

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