Increasingly Desperate Progressives Beg Biden To Lay It On The Line For Voting Rights

Senator Joe Manchin, Senator Krysten Sinema, President Joe Biden. TPM Illustration/Getty Images.
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September 4, 2021 9:10 a.m.

Is filibuster reform dead? 

Eight months into President Joe Biden’s term, the minoritarian Senate rule remains untouched. It’s not how activists thought things would unfold. 

Back in January, they saw a dynamic flowing in their favor: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would block nearly everything Democrats tried to do, gradually frustrating Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) into embracing filibuster reform. 

Meanwhile, they’d be launching a pressure campaign, educating people about the rule’s racist history and showing them what it means in practice: no minimum wage hike, no LGBTQ protections, no sweeping labor protection act, no gun restrictions, no expanding the Supreme Court. And most importantly, for the psychologically battered and bruised Democratic politicians and constituents alike who just witnessed a president come close to stealing an election while letting loose a violent mob on the Capitol — no voting rights, gerrymandering reform, or election protections. 

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Even if it meant letting Biden’s beloved infrastructure bills, the centerpiece of his agenda, go first in line, activists were generally hopeful — or at least they saw a path. Clear the infrastructure bills off the deck, then tackle pro-democracy reforms and bust the filibuster if you had to to make it happen. 

“I’m not as optimistic as I was,” Adam Jentleson, a former Harry Reid staffer and author of a history of the filibuster, told TPM this week. 

The war of attrition-style failed votes at the hands of Republican senators haven’t worked. Various reforms and tactical ideas haven’t significantly swayed Manchin or Sinema. Witnessing up close the new two-tiered Senate operating system, where certain bills can pass through reconciliation while the rest are consigned to the filibuster graveyard, hasn’t piqued their frustration. 

And activists’ best argument, their battle-informed warnings that without voting protections, Republicans would try the 2020 gambit again but better, fell on deaf ears. The gerrymandering clock has started, and maps will start dropping this month. As more time elapses, it’ll become too late to put voting reforms in place before the 2022 midterms.  

Discouraged, more pessimistic than before and with the clock ticking, anti-filibuster activists are coalescing around the last remaining untapped resource: Biden himself. 

The President has displayed what activists described to TPM as a “baffling” ambivalence on the voting rights issue. He’s made it clear to them that his heart’s just not in it the way it has been on infrastructure, where he attended Senate lunches, deputized his team to work the Hill, dispatched Cabinet secretaries to barnstorm the country and gave a series of public speeches. 

“I have believed throughout that if President Biden wants to get this done, he can,” Eli Zupnick, spokesman for anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate, told TPM. “But if he doesn’t prioritize it and use the bully pulpit and his political capital to protect democracy, then it very likely won’t happen.”

Activists pointed to Biden’s July voting rights speech in Philadelphia as the moment where many slid from giving the White House the benefit of the doubt to concluding that Biden just wasn’t invested in forging a path to pass the bills. 

During the speech, he fiercely condemned the wave of voting restrictions from GOP-led legislatures and called it a “national imperative” to pass voting rights legislation, specifically naming the For the People Act. But he didn’t express any support for filibuster reform or elimination — and without it, the voting bills are dead. 

“He tried to throw rhetoric on the problem to paper over his lack of commitment,” Jentleson said. “It’s not clear to me that Biden has decided he’s willing to reform the filibuster. Or at least, he’s still suspended in this in-between space where he kinda thinks it’s maybe necessary, but is also willing to throw up his hands and say ‘Manchin and Sinema say I can’t do it so I can’t do it,’ instead of rolling up his sleeves to get them to yes.” 

Biden’s reluctance to throw his weight behind gutting the filibuster has spawned all kinds of theories and speculation. 

A senator for four decades, he could just be too wedded to the way the chamber operates. Maybe his administration has decided that passing big legislation through reconciliation will be enough to shield Democrats from a midterm shellacking. There’s speculation that he’s decided it’s already too late for 2022, to cut his losses and retain political capital for the infrastructure push. Maybe he’s decided that these reforms wouldn’t be as effective as Democrats hope in combating the structural advantages Republicans enjoy.

“He’s a creature of the Senate,” Jim Manley, former spokesman for Reid and the Senate Democrats, shrugged. “As such, I think that he’s a) reluctant to take the step himself, and b) very comfortable deferring to Senate leaders as to whether they have the votes.” 

Activists insist that he must use that deep institutional knowledge of the chamber to launch an all-out pressure campaign, whether public or private, to push the stubborn Democrats to accept filibuster reform. When the 117th Congress was gavelled in, Manchin chirped a refrain in the Senate hallways: “We’re going to make Joe Biden successful.” So, activists urge, cash that in! 

But if Biden remains apathetic, there won’t be many structural forces keeping voting rights front of mind for lawmakers over the next month. For the couple weeks the Senate is in session in September, lawmakers will have to deal with crafting the reconciliation package and navigating Manchin’s demands, facing Republican threats on the debt ceiling, hammering out the budget and averting a potential government shutdown. 

Schumer has promised to bring up a bill currently being crafted behind closed doors, expected to be a winnowed-down version of the For the People Act, when the Senate returns. But it’s not clear that the effort will amount to much more than a vote, a Republican filibuster and back to the business at hand. 

“If Manchin and Sinema don’t want to get to yes on this no matter what, that’s a larger problem,” Jentleson said. “But the only way to know the truth is on the other side of the President personally spending 6 months pressing them.” 

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