If The Democracy Reform Bill Is Going To Die In The Senate, It Won’t Be A Quiet Death This Time

Democrats still don’t have a clear path for making H.R.1 law, but they do have more tools this time for giving it their all.
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 22: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 22: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
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March 4, 2021 7:02 a.m.

The Democrats have one thing going for them now that the House has again approved a sweeping democracy overhaul bill. If it fails in the Senate, at least failure will look different this time around.

The legislation — which includes measures seeking to improve access to the ballot, a campaign finance overhaul, ethics reform and an anti-gerrymandering provision — has been in the works for several years now. It was the first bill the House approved when Democrats took over the lower chamber in 2019, only to see it not even get a committee hearing, let alone a floor vote, in the Senate. Now key Democrats and their allies supporting the bill are promising a full court press.

But as long as their counterparts in the Senate lack either the 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster or the 50 votes to change key Senate rules, the bill — known as “For the People Act” — will not become law. Its provisions are not of the taxing-and-spending variety that would allow the Senate to use the so-called reconciliation process, which requires bills to have the support of only a bare majority for passage. There is also little appetite to bring it up in parts.

Still, advocates of the “For the People Act” are calling for Senate leaders to take full advantage of the procedural tools now at their disposal to pressure the lawmakers that are standing in their way. And they say the current circumstances, with the GOP rushing to pass voter restrictions across the country and the Supreme Court on the verge of further undermining the Voting Rights Act, create a do-or-die moment for Democrats.

“[Republicans] are doubling down in every place they can,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), one its lead sponsors, told TPM. “And it’s against that backdrop, and in that context, that it’s so critical that we have these uniform baseline standards, best practices that allow people to access their franchise.” 

The battle is headed towards a climactic showdown over centrist Democrats’ allegiance to the filibuster.

“Americans are going to watch very closely, whether senators choose to protect voting rights or protect anti-democratic filibuster rule,” said Stephen Spaulding, a senior counsel for the voting rights group Common Cause who worked closely on the bill when it was coming together in the House.

The Senate version will be S. 1, just as the House version was H.R.1 — a sign of how important congressional leaders see the legislation. Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has committed to a vote on the Senate floor, according to a Senate aide.

First there will be a hearing on the bill in the Senate Rules Committee — likely this month, according to the committee chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — and a mark-up soon after that.

“My number one focus is to get this done,” she told TPM.

Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the committee, previewed a “vigorous debate” in those hearings, while expressing confidence to TPM that the Republican caucus would remain unified against it once it hits the floor. 

“It’s sort of everything that Democrats have wanted to do that they thought would give them an advantage, and, I think, make the voting process less secure,” Blunt told TPM

Nevertheless, they’ll be opposing an incredibly popular piece of legislation, which polling has shown enjoys broad support not just generally, but even from a majority of Republican voters. House Democrats also made last-minute changes to their version to head off some of the GOP attacks, which have gotten a boost from a Republican-aligned outside group, and more tweaks in the Senate could come.

Meanwhile, the bill’s advocates are preparing to expand their own PR campaign. One group, which already spent $1.5 million supporting frontline House Democrats for backing the bill is planning a $10 million ad buy — a mixture of digital and TV advertisements — for the Senate push.

“We have to make sure that the senators, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, are hearing from their constituents about the urgency to pass this bill,” Tiffany Muller, the president of the group, the End Citizens United — Let America Vote Action Fund, told TPM.

Some of the focus will be on targeting Republicans, particularly those who have supported voting rights legislation in the past, who are planning to retire or who broke with the party on impeaching President Trump. But other advocates acknowledge that changing the filibuster is the more likely possibility, though not every group that’s in the coalition that is supporting the bill is in favor of filibuster reform. And the opposition among centrist Democrats is, for now, just as fierce; this week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) put his likelihood of reversing his filibuster stance at: “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never.’

Still, at least some Senate Democrats think that not just one floor vote, but maybe several, could be a worthy exercise.

“You bring it to the floor a few times and let them obstruct it,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), whose campaign finance bill, The DISCLOSE Act, is one of the pieces of S.1.  “And you see what effect bad faith obstruction has on some of our members’ views about the filibuster.”

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