For years, a question has loomed over Democrats’ sprawling democratic overhaul bill: whether they could find 50 votes in the Senate to gut the filibuster and circumvent certain GOP opposition. The answer to that question remains unknown. And yet, Democrats had a reason to feel energized Thursday, as they headed into a vote next week that will be the first time the Senate is put on record on the bill since it was introduced in 2019.
The chances that the bill, the For the People Act, will become law are no better than when it was passed out of the House in March. Those chances are extremely slim, because of the Senate filibuster rules and the current lack of 50 votes to change them.
The optimism expressed by Democrats on Thursday was around avoiding a situation that would have been deeply embarrassing for the caucus: failing to get 50 votes on a bill so important to them, it’s been labeled S.1. Since Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced his initial opposition to the measure, that was a real possibility — and one that could cut short what was expected to be a summer-long effort on voting rights.
Without getting a bare majority’s support, progressives could not argue that the filibuster was the only impediment to passing the legislation. And Republicans would have been handed an easy talking point against the bill, which they have derided as a partisan power grab.
On Thursday, Senate Democrats, emerging from a closed-door lunch to discuss S. 1, sounded hopeful that they would solidify their caucus behind the legislation. But they couldn’t say for certain they would secure to 50 votes in its favor.
“I never like to predict things, but if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be planning on spending the weekend working on it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the committee that had jurisdiction over the bill, said.
Up until this week, S.1 seemed to be in a state of paralysis. Manchin had previously insisted that he would only support elections overhaul legislation if it had bipartisan buy-in. And Republicans — who are extremely resistant to any federal intervention in state elections rules and who have defended many of the state efforts to curb ballot access — have remained unwavering in their opposition to the bill.
Supporters of the bull had mounted a full court press on Manchin to bring him on board on at least on the substance of the legislation, even if getting him and other centrists to agree to gutting the filibuster still seems out of reach. He hosted a Zoom call on Monday with civil rights groups and some Republicans to discuss the issue, Politico reported. His staff met Tuesday with state Democratic lawmakers from Texas, who had come to Washington to discuss the need for voting rights protections amid attempts by their GOP counterparts to make voting harder in the Lone Star state.
One Wednesday, Manchin presented a document detailing the voting rights provisions he would be willing to support. It embraced key parts of the For the People Act, which also overhauls certain ethics and campaign financed rules. But he also proposed watering down or removing other provisions. For instance, Manchin does not support S.1’s mandates for Election Day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting, according to the proposal. He would also take a stricter approach to voter ID than what the Democratic bill laid out. He’s opposed to Democrats’ mandate that non-ID holders be allowed sign an affidavit to vote instead. But Manchin’s proposal says that alternatives to photo ID, like a utility bill, should be allowed for voting.
Weighing in on Manchin’s voter ID proposal, Klobuchar said Democrats were “negotiating, talking about” how an alternative ID, like a utility bill, would be defined.
But the blowback to those demands was minimal, as Democrats like Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) praised it as a “constructive” and “thoughtful” offer. Helping to propel the intra-party negotiation was the blessing Manchin’s proposal received Thursday morning from Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia lawmaker and candidate for Georgia governor who now heads a voting rights groups.
“I agree with Stacey Abrams, with whom I’ve worked for years on these voting rights issues, and I think we’re very close to where we need to be,” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) told reporters.
Next Tuesday’s vote will be on a so-called motion to proceed, the parliamentary mechanism that would bring the bill to the floor. But that legislative maneuver could — and will — run into a Republican filibuster. And there is no indication yet that Democrats have been guaranteed Manchin’s vote in favor of the procedural move. At Thursday’s lunch, Manchin “spoke a lot,” he told reporters after, and Democrats got their fullest view yet of what provisions he will and won’t support.
“We were walking through what Joe says he wants and lining that up against S.1,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told reporters. “There is the making there for a very, very substantive bill that can combine all 50 Dems.”
Getting 50 votes in favor of S.1 will not get Democrats any closer than they were in January to a filibuster-proof plan that would get S.1 out of the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk. But on Thursday, Democrats were just happy about the prospect that the bill might not be officially dead due to lack of support in their own party.
“If we reach unity on a voting bill in the Democratic Party, with all of the debates we have been having over the last few months, I don’t think anything is over yet.” Klobuchar said.