Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are preparing to take one more big swing at voting rights. They may end up hitting their base with a huge letdown.
The House will return to Washington later this month to vote on updated legislation to restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013. Across the Capitol, a small group of Democratic senators are closing in on a compromise on separate but related set of more immediate voting reforms they think could unify the party, if not get any new Republican votes.
But for either effort to bear real fruit, a huge shift would have to take place — one that some in the party fear could be impossible: Convincing Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and other Democratic moderates to back a change to Senate rules.
Schumer hasn’t shown his hand on any potential changes to the filibuster that’s currently stymieing the party’s elections bills, saying only that “everything is on the table.” But in an interview Wednesday, the Senate majority leader said he remains hopeful Congress can act on voting rights.
“If I didn’t think the door was open, I wouldn’t pursue it, just rip the Band-Aid off,” Schumer said. “You have to keep pursuing it because it’s so damn important.”
Time is of the essence. After months of inaction, Democrats are down to their final few weeks before the new congressional maps are drawn for next year’s midterms. The Census Bureau will release key redistricting data on Thursday that states need to redraw their congressional maps. Already, 18 states have approved a slew of laws that would make it generally harder for people to vote.
Most Democratic lawmakers and aides are skeptical anything gets done this Congress on voting rights and elections. Manchin and Sinema in particular appear to be unpersuadable when it comes to changing Senate rules. They’re not alone; several other Democratic senators privately have reservations about changing the legislative filibuster.
Nevertheless, Democrats closely involved in the process remain optimistic. While publicly it seems that little has happened since a failed Senate vote in June, furious negotiations have continued behind the scenes to prepare a package of voting reforms that has a chance to survive not only the Senate filibuster but also what Democrats see as an inevitable Supreme Court challenge.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sounded hopeful on a small leadership call last week, telling her team to work aggressively to pass their revised voting rights bill before the Senate is slated to return in mid-September. Pelosi was sanguine that the Senate would be able to advance a compromise despite past resistance from Manchin and other moderates, according to Democrats familiar with the call.
The West Virginian, however, is showing no signs of changing his views on the filibuster and rejecting a compromise idea that would bend the Senate rules by creating a “carve-out” for voting-related bills.
“Joe Manchin is not wavering on the filibuster. It’s just not happening. He doesn’t believe it’s good for the Senate or the country,” said Jonathan Kott, a former Manchin adviser.
But Manchin has joined a small group of senators who have been meeting regularly to craft a middle-ground approach on elections, which keeps the dream of a rules change alive for some Democrats.
“I believe they are committed to protecting the right to vote. I think they are committed to bipartisanship,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who has been closely involved in drafting voting rights bills this year. “But when those two ideas intersect and collide, I believe Sens. Manchin and Sinema will carve out a ‘democracy exception’ and allow 51 votes to control the outcome.”
The group of Senate Democratic negotiators also includes Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Alex Padilla of California, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Jon Tester of Montana and Independent Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with the party. They’ve met a handful of times with Schumer to try to hammer out a deal, and staffers for the group’s members have met more frequently in recent weeks.
Democrats involved in the talks say the Senate’s compromise, which is close to being finished, is broader than the substitute Manchin proposed earlier this summer but less sweeping than than the voting reforms and anti-corruption bill that the House passed with the symbolic designation of H.R. 1. Manchin reiterated his opposition to H.R. 1 during a pre-dawn speech Wednesday after Republicans blocked Schumer’s efforts to move to voting legislation but said he was committed to trying to find a compromise.
“I believe that we need to come together to restore people’s faith in the integrity of our elections,” Manchin said on the floor around 4:30 a.m.
Democrats, including Butterfield, have spent the summer holding a dozen hearings on their own voting rights bill, named for the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). That bill would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions must have changes to election law approved by the Justice Department or a federal court in D.C. before they go into effect. Such approval, known as pre-clearance, was effectively neutered by the Supreme Court in a decision last decade.
As a result, Democrats say much of the landmark Voting Rights Act has been dismantled and risks disenfranchising millions of Americans next fall — urgency underscored by a raft of GOP voting measures approved under pressure from the Trump wing of the party.
Butterfield said his staff have been discussing the bill with their Senate counterparts on a near-daily basis all summer. Still, there is no clear path for the Lewis-named bill to advance across the Capitol, where a previous version counted only one GOP cosponsor.
Senate Republicans have shown no interest in providing the 10 votes Democrats would need to move forward on any legislation related to voting, accusing Democrats of trying to mount a federal takeover of elections. Schumer acknowledged that reality on Wednesday.
“Republicans refusing to support anything on voting rights is not an excuse for Democrats to do nothing,” Schumer told reporters. “We have made progress and we are showing very clearly to everyone of our 50 senators that Republicans won’t join us.”
Just before recessing the upper chamber until September, Schumer attempted to bring to the floor legislation that would address campaign finance and redistricting but faced GOP objections. He then moved to set up another vote for when the Senate returns to session next month, which likely will be on Democrats’ compromise legislation.
Congressional Democrats may have one other path to protecting voting rights this Congress, though it would fall dramatically short of what most in the party want. Some senior Democrats had discussed adding billions of dollars in funding for election infrastructure to the party’s forthcoming, filibuster-proof social spending bill — an idea that House leadership rejected for fear of sapping energy from the broader voting policy bills.
Still, some Democrats say they hope to see at least some of that funding included in their party’s sprawling $3.5 trillion package later this summer.
“We were concerned that the election infrastructure money was not included” in the Senate budget that tees up the party-line social spending bill, Butterfield said. But, he added, he hopes some of the money could wind up in the final version of the legislation.
Even if Democrats do succeed in their long-shot legislative push, it is likely too late for some of the biggest voting reforms. Setting up independent redistricting commissions, for instance, would be a moot point when states are just one day away from receiving the new Census data to begin drafting their maps for 2022.
And it’s a major question mark whether Democrats can try to outlaw partisan gerrymandering in time for the midterms.
Democrats and ballot access advocates believe there’s still time to enact certain guardrails — such as the pre-clearance for states’ voting law changes — but they warn it would need to happen quickly.
“There’s no question that there is a tight deadline for getting all of this done,” Warnock said this week.
Zach Montellaro and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.