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Schumer sets up final Senate confrontation on voting rights and the filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) after a news conference Tuesday. (Oliver Contreras/for The Washington Post)
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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer prepared Democrats on Wednesday for the final phase of a year-long push to pass voting rights legislation, sketching out legislative maneuvers that could launch debate on a pair of stalled bills and force a confrontation over the Senate’s rules in the coming days.

The details of the next steps, laid out in a memo that Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent to colleagues Wednesday afternoon, comes as President Biden has launched his own aggressive push to convince his fellow Democrats to band together and overhaul the filibuster — the long-standing Senate rule requiring a 60-vote supermajority — in order to overcome strict GOP opposition to voting rights bills.

Biden made that case publicly in an address he delivered in Atlanta on Tuesday, when he said the Senate “has been rendered a shell of its former self” and compared the present Republican opposition to the blockades mounted against civil rights bills in the Jim Crow era. He is scheduled to visit a Senate Democratic lunch Thursday in order to press his case directly with lawmakers.

President Biden, while speaking in Atlanta on Jan. 11, endorsed changing the Senate filibuster rule to ease passage of voting rights bills. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the memo, Schumer announced his intention to use existing rules to jump-start debate on the voting bills by having the House amend an existing, unrelated bill dealing with NASA and sending it back to the Senate as soon as Wednesday night. Starting debate under those circumstances requires only a simple majority of 51 votes — not a 60-vote supermajority.

But the maneuver does not affect the 60-vote requirement for ending debate and moving to final passage of the Democratic bills. With at least two Democratic senators signaling that they are not willing to erode that provision, Schumer’s plan would set up a final confrontation when and if a motion to close debate is blocked. At that point, Schumer or another Democrat could move to establish a new, 51-vote precedent, subject to a simple majority vote.

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both defended the 60-vote margin for protecting minority rights and encouraging bipartisanship even as dozens of their colleagues have switched their own views on the filibuster in recent months. Manchin told reporters on several occasions this week he is willing to change the rules only with bipartisan support, not on party lines.

Both Manchin and Sinema, however, have continued to meet with Democratic colleagues who have sought to change their minds. Schumer previously said the Senate would vote on a possible rules change no later than Monday — the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday — and a senior Democratic aide said Wednesday that pledge remains in effect.

Speaking on MSNBC on Wednesday morning, Schumer acknowledged that the two centrists remained a significant obstacle: “Do I want people to think we’re almost there? No. It’s an uphill fight,” he said on “Morning Joe.” “But Manchin and Sinema are talking to us, and we are going to hope to get this done. It is too important to drop.”

Schumer, in the memo, said launching a formal floor debate this week “sets up a process in which Senators can finally make clear to the American people where they stand on protecting our democracy and preserving the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot.”

“With this procedure, we will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation — something that Republicans have thus far denied,” he said. “Of course, to ultimately end debate and pass the voting rights legislation, we will need 10 Republicans to join us — which we know from past experience will not happen — or we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before.”

Republicans last year blocked Democrats from starting debate on voting bills on several occasions dating back to June. Schumer said the House will send over legislation with two major Democratic voting bills attached.

One, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore federal oversight provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been struck down by the Supreme Court, while the other, the Freedom to Vote Act, would create new federal mandates for early voting, vote-by-mail, ballot drop boxes and other provisions meant to counter GOP state laws passed in the wake of the 2020 presidential elections, spurred on by former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.

Said Schumer in the memo, “If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same? In the coming days, we will most likely confront this sobering question — together.”

Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have amped up their opposition to both the voting bills and the proposed rules changes in recent days. Dozens of Republican senators have delivered floor speeches and press statements accusing Democrats of hypocrisy after arguing for the filibuster’s preservation under Republican majorities.

McConnell on Wednesday delivered a pointed rebuttal to Biden’s Atlanta speech, accusing him of partisan hyperbole and betraying his own campaign pledges to unite rather than divide Americans.

He called the Biden address “profoundly unpresidential and “incorrect, incoherent, and beneath his office” in a morning floor speech. “I have known, liked, and personally respected Joe Biden for many years,” McConnell added. “I did not recognize the man at that podium yesterday.”