Schumer eyes final reckoning over voting rights and filibuster rule
Sahil Kapur, Frank Thorp V and Garrett Haake January 12, 2022
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Democratic colleagues in a letter Wednesday that he will force a procedural vote on the Freedom To Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
To make that happen, he’ll use a quirk in the rules to allow floor debate on the bills, both of which have majority support in the 50-50 Senate. But advancing the measures to a vote on final passage requires 60 senators to break a filibuster, which Democrats have no realistic hope of achieving due to Republican opposition.
Once the bills are filibustered, Schumer said, “we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before,” according to the letter obtained by NBC News.
But Democrats don’t have the 50 votes they need to pierce the filibuster rule using the so-called nuclear option. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remain reluctant to changing the rules, and there is scant evidence that they’re likely to budge.
Still, Democratic leaders are focusing their rhetoric on Republicans.
“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?” Schumer said in Wednesday’s letter. “In the coming days, we will most likely confront this sobering question – together.”
The Freedom To Vote Act doesn’t have any Republican support in the Senate. The John Lewis bill has one GOP backer: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Schumer’s letter to colleagues comes one day after President Joe Biden gave a fiery speech calling for changing the filibuster, if necessary, to pass the two election overhaul bills and overcome former President Donald Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen 2020 election that has fueled voting restrictions at the state level.
“As an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote. Let the majority prevail,” Biden said. “And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fiercely opposes the two bills and has said states should be able to set their own election rules. Unlike Democrats, he has said there’s no problem with the voting limits being enacted in numerous Republican-led states around the country.
McConnell said Biden’s speech featured “rhetoric unbecoming of a president of the United States.”
‘A critical issue of our time’
Manchin said Wednesday that Biden gave a “good speech,” but offered no indication that he has changed his mind on the filibuster. “We’re all still talking,” he said. “He understands — we all understand how the Senate works.”
Sinema’s office declined to comment.
Both of their positions will become clear in the next few days. Schumer has said he wants to hold the votes no later than Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on Monday.
Schumer’s strategy for forcing the votes utilizes a little-used congressional procedure where the House can send a bill to the Senate in a way that allows Democrats to bypass one of two 60-vote-threshold filibuster votes that most legislation is subject to in the upper chamber.
The House kicked off that process Wednesday evening with a meeting in the Rules Committee to send the legislative vehicle to the Senate.
Once the House sends the bill across the Capitol, Senate Democrats will be able to start debate on the voting rights bills with a simple majority, something they have been blocked by Republicans from doing in the past.
“We will finally be able to get on the bill,” Sen Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters. “What happens next is still TBD, but the Republicans cannot filibuster us getting on the bill anymore.”
Republicans are guaranteed to filibuster an end to floor debate on the bill, which would prevent a final vote on the legislation.
“I’m just trying to figure out if he wants to lose once or twice,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of Schumer’s gambit. “But I think we know what the outcome is going to be.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., acknowledged the challenges facing Democrats.
“There’s a growing consensus among Democrats and Republicans on the need for rules changes. It’s difficult to do during a debate on one bill,” he said.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber, hasn’t given up on winning.
“I think everybody realizes that this is a critical issue of our time,” she told NBC News. “It is important that we find a way to make sure that when history is on our shoulders right now, we have a way to move forward. I don’t think we can prejudge the outcome of this at all.”