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Senate Democrats renew focus on voting rights as domestic policy bill stalls and filibuster changes are considered

President Biden speaks as he tours a neighborhood, in Mayfield, Ky., on Tuesday. He said “There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights” in response to a reporter’s question during the trip.
President Biden speaks as he tours a neighborhood, in Mayfield, Ky., on Tuesday. He said “There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights” in response to a reporter’s question during the trip. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Senate Democrats are scrambling to find a way to pass in the coming weeks voting rights legislation they have portrayed as necessary to protect democracy amid increasing pressure to counter Republican changes to election laws in key states and as progress on the domestic policy bill they have made their top legislative priority for months has stalled.

Several lawmakers said Wednesday they are optimistic the new push could succeed where previous efforts have failed because of growing support for changing the Senate’s filibuster rule that has allowed Republicans to block previous attempts to pass voting rights legislation.

But it remained far from certain that the rules changes under consideration would ultimately go beyond nibbling around the edges of the filibuster’s 60-vote supermajority requirement for most legislation, leaving the party once again facing the seemingly intractable predicament of how to deliver on a campaign promise they say is needed to deal with an existential crisis for the country.

In 2021, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) changed his top line spending number for President Biden’s agenda more than half a dozen times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“If we can get the congressional voting rights done, we should do it. If we can’t, we’ve got to keep going,” President Biden said Wednesday while visiting storm-ravaged Kentucky. “There’s nothing domestically more important than voting rights.”

The filibuster, explained

Civil rights groups aligned with the Democrats are warning that the party needs to show a greater sense of urgency and stop letting congressional rules get in the way.

Acting before New Year’s Day is “crucial” given that state legislatures are scheduled to begin returning to session in January — potentially expanding obstacles to voter access and drawing partisan congressional maps that would be outlawed under Democratic legislation, NAACP President Derrick Johnson said after meeting with a handful of senators Wednesday.

“This is about protecting our nation, our Constitution, so it would be unconscionable for members to leave before acting,” Johnson said, noting that the Senate acted last week to exempt a debt ceiling hike from the filibuster — albeit for one lone occasion.

The urgency to act is also being fueled by the recent election law changes in states such as Georgia and Texas that civil rights groups and Democrats argue will make it harder for people in minority communities to vote and will also potentially give legislatures in GOP-controlled states greater power to influence presidential election outcomes through changes that sideline or weaken the authority of state election officials.

The long-simmering discussion about Senates rules reheated this week as progress on the massive climate, tax and social policy bill appeared to stall. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a key defender of the filibuster, met Wednesday with small groups of Republicans and Democrats, including Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But Manchin has given no clear indication that he has changed his long-stated view that the 60-vote margin must ultimately stay intact, leaving the GOP in a position to block the voting bills and other partisan legislation.

“A rules change should be done to where we all have input . . . because we’re all going to live with it,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Because we’ll be in the minority sometime.”

Other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, however, said the talks have centered on a broad range of proposals, from making it easier for the Senate to start debate on bills to curbing the ability of a senator to single-handedly block action on chamber business. There have also been discussions, several senators said, of a “talking filibuster” that would force objecting senators to hold the Senate floor rather than silently object.

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But senators disagree on whether there is a path to ultimately lowering the 60-vote threshold for passing legislation — the central obstacle to passing voting-rights bills that Republicans almost uniformly oppose. One bill, the Freedom to Vote Act co-written by Manchin, failed to advance in October on a 50-50 vote, while the second major bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, drew a single Republican supporter, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

While some Republicans are open to conversations about streamlining how the Senate operates in some circumstances, they are deeply wary that Democrats are ultimately focused on undoing the 60-vote filibuster, which has been in place since 1975 but whose use has mushroomed in the past decade.

“That’s just not a conversation that Republicans are going to enter into, no matter how they try and disguise it,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said while crediting Manchin with “some interesting, innovative, creative ideas.”

Manchin is not the only Democrat who has raised concerns about eroding the filibuster. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) has repeatedly said — as recently as last month — that she believes lowering the threshold for passing legislation would harm the Senate, not improve it.

“My opinion is that legislation that is crafted together, in a bipartisan way, is the legislation that’s most likely to pass and stand the test of time,” she said in a Washington Post interview.

But those views have not stopped voting rights advocates from pushing for action on the stalled voting rights bills. The Freedom to Vote Act would move to undo new voting restrictions passed by some GOP legislatures following the 2020 election and former president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. The John Lewis bill, named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights crusader, would restore the federal government’s role in reviewing state and local voting laws as originally passed in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Sinema was among a handful of senators who participated in a virtual meeting Wednesday with the NAACP’s Johnson, who pressed those participating to support rules changes to pass the legislation.

In an interview afterward, Johnson praised Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) for indicating they would change the rules to pass voting rights bills.

Bennet has spoken as far back as September about potentially supporting changes that would ultimately allow legislation to pass on a 51-vote margin. Peters, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, made his most definitive public statement yet Wednesday backing changes. A spokesman said in a statement that Peters “believes that we must pass voting rights legislation that protects access to the ballot box — and that this legislation should receive an up-or-down vote at a majority threshold.”

Another Democrat, Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, also expressed new support for rules changes Wednesday, saying in a statement that he had changed his mind after Republicans repeatedly voted to block debate on voting bills. “Voter disenfranchisement threatens our entire democracy,” he said.

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A top House Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), said Wednesday that he thought a voting rights breakthrough was possible: “I don’t want to put a time frame on it, but I think we’ll do it in time.”

Biden is scheduled to visit South Carolina on Friday as the featured speaker at the graduation ceremony at historically Black South Carolina State University, an event where voting rights could be a topic of conversation.

The discussions on voting rights have ramped up as negotiations over Democrats’ vast domestic policy bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, have bogged down. With Manchin also at the center of those talks, Democrats appeared increasingly resigned Wednesday to missing a self-imposed Christmas deadline, and many have seized on voting rights as the most pressing alternative for the final legislative push of the year.

Republicans made clear this week that while they may have held their nose and endorsed a rule change to allow Democrats to perform the politically unsavory but necessary task of raising the debt ceiling, paving the way for voting rights bills that they believe will disadvantage the GOP is another thing entirely.

Sen. Mike Rounds (S.D.), who is among the Republicans who consulted with Manchin, said his party was willing to entertain measures that simplified some cumbersome processes but unwilling to do anything that significantly eroded minority rights in the chamber.

Democrats’ late push for voting rights, he said, amounted to theater for a party that is struggling to enact major agenda items as the year comes to a close.

“They’re looking for something they could take home to their base, and I just get the impression that they thought that the Voting Rights Act could be viewed as greater than a Senate rule,” he said. “The bottom line is, there’s a lot of us that have talked about voting rights, but we don’t see their current bills as being appropriate.”

Any bipartisan rules change, Rounds added, “won’t happen between now and Christmas.”

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Democrats appear divided on how far the rules changes would ultimately go. Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), who has played a leading role with Manchin in formulating a plan, said he hoped any proposal would offer a path to passing the voting rights bills but would not entirely abolish the filibuster.

“We cannot abolish the filibuster because Joe and others don’t want to,” he said. “So it’s all within, how can we make the Senate work better without abolishing the filibuster?”

Kaine suggested that Manchin would be willing to back rules changes on a purely partisan basis so long as they included ideas favored by some in the GOP: “We don’t have illusions that Republicans are going to join us, but . . . if we get there, I think there will be things in there that Republicans have asked for years.”

But Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he believed any deal would revolve around smaller-bore changes such as eliminating one-senator blockades rather than rolling back the 60-vote legislative margin. A package of those dimensions would not allow Democrats to evade GOP opposition on voting rights.

Minority-party lawmakers “can still raise hell, and they can still hold people accountable, but they don’t have a one-person veto anymore,” Tester said.

Marianna Sotomayor in Washington and Sean Sullivan in Dawson Springs, Ky., contributed to this report.