Voting Rights Bill Creeps Closer To The Senate Floor, But Now Comes The Hard Part For Dems

UNITED STATES - MAY 11: Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., testifies during the Senate Rules and Administration Committee markup of the For the People Act in Russell Building on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (P... UNITED STATES - MAY 11: Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., testifies during the Senate Rules and Administration Committee markup of the For the People Act in Russell Building on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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May 11, 2021 6:47 p.m.

Tuesday’s Senate committee mark-up of Democrats’ sprawling democracy overhaul lasted more than eight hours, included dozens of amendment votes and featured plenty of sharp partisan barbs about a Democratic “takeover” of elections and Republicans’ willingness to double down on President Trump’s “big lie.” The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration deadlocked on partisan lines on whether to approve the bill — meaning that Democrats will have to use a complicated parliamentary maneuver to get the so-called For the People Act on the Senate floor.

Tuesday’s proceeding was still much easier for Democrats than what is about to come.

With the bill’s champions acknowledging that they will get no Republican support when they put it before the full upper chamber, the legislation is as good as dead for as long as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other Democratic centrists oppose weakening the filibuster in order to ram through the measure.

In floor remarks Tuesday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) even lowered expectations a bit from the confidence he expressed earlier this year.

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In March, Schumer vowed that “failure was not option” for the voting rights legislation. On Tuesday, he committed only to a floor vote while calling on Republicans to “work in good faith” with Democrats to shape and advance the bill.

Senate Democrats are reportedly planning to discuss the legislation at a private caucus meeting Thursday. As Tuesday’s committee mark-up chugged along, there was little clarity among the caucus’ rank-and-file about what happens when a Republican filibuster stalls the legislation on the floor.

“We’re reaching the witching hour, so we need to make some choices, assuming this goes how we think this is going to go,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told TPM.

In a signal of how committed Republicans are to opposing it, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) participated in the mark-up. Schumer made an appearance at the mark-up as well.

The legislation’s chief sponsors — and the outside voting rights groups who are spending big to support it — have been insistent that they don’t want to break the bill into smaller pieces that might get broader, bipartisan support.

The bill’s measures to create nationwide standards for ballot access — with provisions mandating no-excuse mail voting, a certain amount of early voting, and protections for voters to prevent them from being purged from the rolls — have gained most of the attention, given the surge of state-level restrictive voting proposals advancing nationwide.

But the For the People Act also includes a sweeping retooling of the U.S. campaign finance system, as well as several ethical reforms.

“The different parts of the bill are very important and they support support each other,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), a lead sponsor of the bill, told TPM on Tuesday.

Manchin is the lone Senate Democrat to have not put his support behind the bill. He says he favors many of its goals, but believes that a massive elections overhaul should have bipartisan buy-in. He has signaled his preference for focusing on restoration of the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Some Democrats in the House — particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus — have also reportedly started floating a shift towards reviving the Voting Rights Act, which the For the People Act does not do.

A bill to restore the Voting Rights Act is moving along a separate legislative track than the For the People Act. Democrats have put it on a slower pace so that they can create a legislative record, via hearings, around it that will make it more resistant to court challenges.

But the interest among some Democrats in prioritizing the VRA measure, according to a recent Politico report, is one of timing. The redistricting cycle will start in earnest this summer and will be the first since the 2013 Supreme Court VRA decision, which effectively ended federal oversight of map-drawing in the South and in other states with a history of discriminating against minority voters.

While Senate Democrats aren’t ready to admit they’ll be out of options once the For the People Act is filibustered, some are acknowledging that keeping alive the push to pass voting rights legislation might require a reframing of their approach.

“I think we should let today’s markup, and the likely floor vote, play out first,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told TPM when asked about whether Democrats’ would shift their focus to a more narrow push to restore the Voting Rights Act. “We should keep at it, and keep finding ways to pass voting rights reform.”

House Democrats have yet to formally introduce the latest version of their VRA restoration bill, which has been named the John Lewis Act in honor of the late member of Congress. There is, in theory, more optimism for Republican support for a VRA-focused bill. The last time it was renewed by Congress, the vote was 98-0 in the Senate. Nine of the Republicans who supported it in that vote are in the Senate now.

However, so far only one Senate Republican — Sen. Lisa Murkwoski (R-AK) — has co-sponsored the earlier versions of the legislation that would address the 2013 ruling.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, told TPM on Tuesday that it was possible he’d back a VRA bill.

“It would depend on what the Voting Rights amendment really looked like. I have voted for it in the past, I’ve been supportive of it. I think that’s certainly a much more likely success path for them, then this federal takeover of elections would be,” Blunt said. He said he was having discussions with some Democrats about the VRA legislation that the House is working on.

But asked if the bill could get the support of the 10 Republicans it would need to overcome a Senate filibuster, the Missouri Republican — who is a member of GOP Senate leadership — couldn’t say.

A Republican blockade of voting rights legislation will put more scrutiny on the defense that filibuster allegiants have put forward: that it nurtures bipartisan collaboration in the Senate.

“Republicans have this theory that the filibuster promotes bipartisanship, and not just on  small issues, but on big issues,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said. “So let’s put that to the test.”

Kate Riga contributed reporting.

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