Georgia Republicans’ successful effort to enact sweeping voting restrictions has ratcheted up pressure on Democrats to take unprecedented steps and change the rules of the US Senate in order to overhaul election law and expand voting access across the country.
But Democratic hopes are running into a major problem: The party lacks the votes to change the Senate’s rules and doesn’t have total support within its caucus on the electoral changes. The party is also sharply at odds with Republicans on election law changes – all of which make the prospect that Congress will respond to Georgia’s actions extremely grim, despite Democratic control of Washington.
Proponents like Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has become the Democratic Party’s leader on voting rights issues, have argued that the complicated politics of doing anything to change the filibuster could actually be solved by tailoring it to a specific issue like voting.
“I don’t want to have the debate about the larger issue of the filibuster, because if we don’t get this part done, if we don’t solve the democracy crisis, the rest of it is irrelevant,” Abrams said during a streamed conversation with former President Bill Clinton this week. “It is not only an existential crisis we face, it is a moral imperative that we not allow a procedural rule to destroy the most durable democracy the world has known.”
But that thought process runs into Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the lone Senate Democrat who opposes his party’s bill to expand voting access. Manchin has called for changes to the proposal and demanded that the Senate’s two party leaders – Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – instead coalesce around more targeted changes to protect voting rights.
“For the sake of our country, I’m begging the President, I’m begging the leadership … Chuck, I’m begging. Open your mind up, Mitch,” Manchin told CNN. “We need to come around holistically on a voting rights bill because we had an insurrection. It was over voting. And now you’re about ready to put a divisive bill that’d be going down along party lines, and you already want to scrap the filibuster completely?”
Manchin added: “That is so wrong – in the most divided times, and the most violent times I’ve lived in, to even divide it further.”
To appeal to Manchin, Democrats are proposing a narrow change to the Senate’s rules to ensure there is a “carve-out” to allow any voting rights legislation to be advanced by 51 votes, rather than 60 votes currently required to break a filibuster. Yet Manchin has told CNN repeatedly that he’s firmly opposed to any special carve-out, and other Democratic senators, such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have voiced opposition to lowering the 60-vote threshold. To change the rules of the Senate, all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus would need to agree.
Voting rights has become a premier issue for Democrats, with many in the party believing that Republicans are looking to thwart Democratic success in 2020 by passing restrictive bills.
These Democratic fears reached a fever pitch this week after Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that imposes tighter voting restrictions in the state just months after a Democratic presidential candidate won Georgia for the first time since Bill Clinton in 1992. The new law imposes stricter requirements for absentee ballots and limits the use of ballot drop boxes, among other things.
Republicans in a host of other states, with the backing of national leaders, are pushing similar measures, citing unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud to justify the bills just months after Democrats took back the White House by defeating then-President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden, in a win for those hoping for a filibuster carve-out, said this week that he has an “open mind” about changing filibuster rules on “certain things that are just elemental to the functioning of our democracy.” He then cited “the right to vote” as one of those instances.
House Democrats passed a sweeping bill earlier this month that would look to counter these Republican state laws, but the road to 60 votes in the Senate is nonexistent. Republicans view the House’s voting rights legislation as little more than a messaging bill chock-full of Democratic priorities that expanded beyond voting rights and campaign finance revisions. And some Democrats are not sold on the bill, either.
“This is a solution in search of a problem. The turnout in the 2020 election was the highest since 1900,” McConnell said. “This is clearly an effort by one party to rewrite the rules of our political system.”
Multiple GOP aides say Democrats haven’t had conversations with Republicans about building a coalition to amend voting rights on a bipartisan basis. Instead, one Senate GOP aide argued that the bill was merely a reprise of messaging legislation the House passed in 2019 when there was absolutely no chance it would pass in the Senate.
The bill does far more than expand voting access across the country. It makes substantial changes to campaign finance in a way that would require super PACs and 501(c)4 groups to have to disclose donors who contribute more than $10,000. It also would amend the Constitution to overrule Citizens United, a controversial Supreme Court decision that determined corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.
The lack of Republican interest in the Senate, however, is exactly why activists have pushed passing a voting rights bill through any means necessary. Abrams and others have argued that protecting the right to vote is the preeminent issue facing the party at the moment.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder has also argued that the conversation about getting rid of the filibuster altogether ignores the importance of protecting the right to vote.
“This isn’t about the damn filibuster. It’s bigger than that that,” Holder tweeted on Thursday. “This is about the kind of country we want to have: our democracy is at risk. We must fight Republican attempts – all over the country – to cheat and suppress Americans right to vote.”
But Democrats’ discussions about creating a special carve-out for the filibuster on legislation relating to voting rights are also a nonstarter for Republicans, who argue that killing the filibuster at all is a step in the wrong direction.
“We should maintain the institutions in our country that we have,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. “The Senate is one of those institutions that we don’t want to take down.”
For Democrats, the challenge is balancing the wishes of many on the left of their caucus with the relentless commitment to protecting the filibuster by some of the moderates – namely Manchin.
The pressure from outside groups, however, is not weighing on the Democratic caucus, said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who said that intensity from the outside – including from progressive members of the House of Representatives – would do little to actually change the rules of the Senate. That decision, he said, is one that only the caucus could make.
But some Democrats have argued that Republican intransigence has shifted feelings about the filibuster.
“Over the course of this year, there has been a very significant change in feelings about McConnell’s strategy of obstruct and delay, in part because we saw it on such vivid display in 2009, 2011 and 2012,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, am Oregon Democrat who’s a leader on filibuster overhaul in the Senate.