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Democrats revive filibuster fight over voting rights bill

The Hill logo The Hill 9/15/2021 Jordain Carney
a person wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) speaks to reporters as he arrives to the Capitol on Wednesday, August 4, 2021 for amendment votes regarding the bipartisan infrastructure bill. © Greg Nash Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) speaks to reporters as he arrives to the Capitol on Wednesday, August 4, 2021 for amendment votes regarding the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Senate Democrats' new push to pass voting rights legislation is reviving tensions over the legislative filibuster, the biggest roadblock to passing significant pieces of President Biden's agenda.

Democrats rolled out a fresh voting and elections proposal on Tuesday, touting it as a unifier for their 50-member caucus. The measure could come to the floor as soon as next week, setting up another high-profile showdown over the party's top issue as GOP-led states pass more voting laws in response to the 2020 presidential election.

But absent a significant shift in the form of 10 GOP senators voting to help the bill clear its first procedural hurdle, the measure will get blocked. That will in turn put new pressure on Democrats and the White House to try to sway holdouts in their own party to embrace changing the Senate's rules requiring 60 votes for most legislation to advance.

"I think we need to move forward with a voting rights bill," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "What we need to do is abolish the filibuster or drastically reform it."

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), during an interview with MSNBC, added that if Republicans wouldn't support the revised voting rights legislation, then Democrats would "have no choice but to revisit the rules of the Senate."

Though voting rights is a top priority for Democrats, who argue it goes to the roots of American democracy, the legislation faces a rocky road in Congress.

Democrats view coming up with a bill that all 50 of their members can support as a crucial first step in the rolling discussions over the filibuster. They are now giving Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a holdout on changing the filibuster, space to try to find 10 Republicans who would support the new bill.

"We have ... Sen. Manchin who believes that we should try to make this bipartisan. And we're giving him the opportunity to do that with a bill that he supports," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "If that doesn't happen, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

In order to nix the filibuster or change it, Democrats would need total unity from all 50 members of their caucus.

Manchin, however, is focused on trying to pitch Republicans on the new voting bill, saying those conversations have started and will ramp up next week.

"I work with everybody. I want to find out where they are at, what we can do," Manchin told reporters after meeting with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, confirming that he was pitching the Kentucky Republican on the voting rights bill.

"I always think there's a pathway forward. You know me, ... I'm optimistic. I'm here to work with everybody," Manchin added.

But GOP leadership is already warning that they won't support the bill, all but guaranteeing that the renewed Democratic effort falls short when Schumer brings it to the floor.

"No amount of repackaging or relabeling will let Democrats sneak through big pieces of the sweeping, partisan, federal takeover of our nation's elections that they have wanted to pass since they took power," McConnell said before meeting with Manchin.

McConnell added to reporters that Republicans "will not be supporting it."

The brewing battle comes after Democrats missed a self-imposed August deadline to try to pass election legislation. Advocates had long viewed August as a crucial period because of the release of Census Bureau data that states will use to redraw their legislative maps.

Senate Republicans previously blocked the For the People Act, another bill that would have overhauled federal elections, from coming up for debate.

The new bill from Democrats builds on a framework initially circulated by Manchin earlier this summer and includes automatic voter registration, making Election Day a federal holiday, same-day voter registration, national standards for voter ID, new requirements for reporting foreign contact with campaigns and new disclosure requirements for online campaign ads.

Once Republicans block the bill, Democrats say they will want to focus on what, if any, changes to the filibuster could get the support of all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

"I think we have multiple stages here. We first have to have a bill that hopefully 60 senators will support. If that fails to be the case, then we're going to have a conversation among 50 senators and a vice president on how we get this bill passed," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the Democratic bill would get 50 votes when it comes to the floor "and then we're going to have to talk about how do we make it happen if we only have 50 votes."

"A lot of us have ideas for reforms that we could make that would not be abolition of the filibuster," Kaine said.

Democrats have been privately floating potential changes for months, ranging from an exemption from the 60-vote requirement for specific issues to reverting to a talking filibuster that would allow opponents to block a bill for as long as they could hold the floor.

Asked if he was offering reform ideas, Manchin said, "We haven't gone down there."

He added that his Democratic colleagues "pretty much know where I stand" on the filibuster.

Outside groups are already leaning in to try to increase the pressure on Senate Democrats to embrace changing the chamber's rules after months of being in limbo as they prepare to bring voting rights back to the floor.

"This negotiating will be for absolutely nothing if they don't also take the steps required to get it to President Biden's desk. That means reforming the Senate rules and removing the filibuster from the Senate Republicans' obstructionist toolbox," said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy for Indivisible.

But there's no guarantee Democrats will be able to get the support needed to nix the filibuster or even create a carveout for voting rights, as some of Biden's closest allies have suggested. Schumer would need total unity from his caucus to get a rules change through the Senate.

Biden, according to a Rolling Stone report, has offered to try to push moderates toward supporting changes to the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation. White House officials have neither confirmed nor denied the report.

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have warned for months that they don't support getting rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster. And Manchin has specifically ruled out supporting a carveout that would exempt voting rights legislation while keeping the same hurdle intact for other legislation.

Manchin said he was open to speaking with Biden about the issue but gave no indication that he was changing his thinking after telling reporters this week that the filibuster is "permanent."

"Any time the president calls, I'm always awaiting and accepting that call," Manchin said, "and look forward to talking."

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