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Democrats’ Hopes for Voting Reform Fade
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Democrats’ Hopes for Voting Reform Fade

Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema remain opposed to making changes to the filibuster that would pave the way for a simple majority vote to pass the legislation.

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill. 

For nearly seven hours yesterday as Senate Democrats tried to figure out the chamber’s schedule for next week, leaders held open a vote to impose sanctions on those involved with a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. The GOP bill ultimately fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass (but not for a lack of time for senators to ruminate on the matter). New Year, same Senate.

Filibuster Fight Fizzles Before it Begins

Democrats are gearing up for an attempt to change Senate rules to allow passage of a sweeping voting reform measure—but, for now, their effort is set to fail.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he plans to take aim at the 60-vote threshold for most bills in the chamber, at least where it pertains to voting rights. He had initially given a deadline of Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to hold a vote on changing the rules, but that timing is now expected to slip into later next week. 

Democrats have yet to reveal the exact changes to the chamber’s rules they want to make. It appears unlikely they will shoot for a complete elimination of the filibuster—options floated have included reinstating a “talking filibuster” requiring lawmakers to speak for as long as they want to block a bill from moving. Another method would be creating a carve-out specifically for voting rights and election reform. This would allow for a one-time exception to the 60-vote threshold and passage on a simple majority vote.

Democratic leaders have urged their members to back the effort, but holdout Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin are holding firm against pressure from their colleagues to support a rules change. Their positions did not shift yesterday, even after President Joe Biden visited Capitol Hill to make his case.

When Biden emerged from a lengthy conference meeting with Senate Democrats, he spoke for barely a minute to reporters. “I hope we can get this done,” he said, “but I’m not certain.”

Throughout the day, Manchin and Sinema were publicly rejecting his efforts. 

“I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Manchin said after the lunch meeting.

And Sinema delivered a rare floor speech in advance of the conference’s meeting with Biden to voice her opposition to altering the chamber’s rules.

“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division affecting our country,” she said. 

Sinema argued that any changes to the filibuster would backfire in the event that control of the Senate changes hands. Only two Democrats sat in the chamber to hear her speech, but nine Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate GOP Whip John Thune, listened attentively.

Minutes after Sinema’s speech, Thune told reporters outside the chamber that he thought Sinema’s speech “should put the nail in the coffin” for Democrats’ election reform goals or a rules change.

The situation is similar to Democrats’ stalled efforts to win over Manchin and Sinema to advance their sweeping climate and social spending package last year, which the two senators opposed for differing reasons. This time, though, Manchin and Sinema actually say they support the underlying legislation—just not enough to wield the nuclear option and ditch the filibuster. 

Democrats are still hoping they can sway Manchin and Sinema toward the other direction. The pair met with Biden again last night for more than an hour.

Currently, the Senate requires a 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation, and Democrats have been hard-pressed to find 50 senators on some of Biden’s key goals. Biden’s trip to the Capitol came after he delivered a fiery speech in Georgia Tuesday. You can read The Morning Dispatch’s helpful reporting on Biden’s misportrayal of election legislation during that speech here, and Jonah’s response to the speech here.

The bills under consideration are the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, combined by the House into one package earlier this week. 

The Freedom to Vote Act is a pared down version of the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that Democrats first introduced in 2019 after taking back control of the House of Representatives. The version Manchin was willing to accept would still make significant changes to election law around the country, expanding access to the ballot box.

Among other changes, it would make Election Day a federal holiday, require every state to offer at least two weeks of early voting before Election Day, mandate same-day voter registration and no-excuse mail voting, and restore voting access to formerly incarcerated people. It would also ban partisan gerrymandering. The legislation previously failed to advance in the Senate in October.

The other bill, named after the late lawmaker and civil rights icon John Lewis, is more tailored. It would reinstate the federal government’s power to conduct oversight of changes to voting laws in states that have had a recent history of racial discrimination.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act instituted an accountability system for nine states and some localities that required them to get “preclearance” from the Justice Department ahead of changes to their election laws and administration. A 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down that approach.

The John Lewis VRAA also includes language expanding the use of preclearance. GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is the only Republican who supports the measure. For more details, Grace Panetta of Business Insider has a helpful breakdown of the two bills here.

Neither of these bills has enough support to pass this Congress. Lawmakers from both parties are increasingly turning their attention to changes they could actually approve, like clarifying the process for counting Electoral College votes after presidential elections.

At issue is the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that, as our colleague David French has noted, is both ambiguous and arcane. Written in the aftermath of the controversial presidential election of 1876, it was supposed to address what would happen if states sent competing slates of electors to be counted. The legislation formed the basis for supporters of former President Donald Trump to argue that former Vice President Mike Pence had the discretion to reject states’ electoral votes and thus overturn the 2020 presidential election in favor of Trump.

“It makes no sense to federalize our elections right now,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said on the Senate floor Thursday. “Last year, we had a president who disgraced his office by trying to steal an election. What stopped that? Our decentralized state-based systems of elections are what stopped last year’s attempt to steal an election.”

He added that what lawmakers should be discussing is how to prevent another January 6 “by doing the hard and actual bipartisan work—not the grandstanding for Twitter—to reform the Electoral Count Act, which is 130 years old and obviously doesn’t work that well.”

McConnell said last week that he is open to reforming the law. “It obviously has some flaws,” he told reporters.

Schumer, however, has dismissed the narrow reform as a distraction to the overall election law overhaul push. He described the idea as insufficient and “even offensive.”

Yuval Levin, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and National Affairs editor, has argued the approaches of those on both sides of the aisle are misguided.

“Both parties now argue for changes in voting rules—in who can vote, when, and how—when there aren’t really serious problems to take up in that space,” Levin told The Dispatch. “It is easier to vote than ever now, significantly easier than it was a decade ago in every state. And there is very little fraud in our elections, and no systematic fraud of the sort that Republicans seem to imply. So if we judge our system in terms of access and integrity, we would have to say it’s in strong shape. There are always ways to improve it, but there is not some crisis of voter suppression or voter fraud.”

Levin added that the bills may actively be adding to a different crisis—one of public trust in the soundness of elections. “Because these bills are being pursued in partisan ways, they are worse than not necessary. They are toxic to public trust,” he said.

Of Note

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.