Senate Democrats face tough test of unity with voting rights bill


The internal caucus discussions are just getting underway and no final decisions have been made yet about what changes could be made to the bill to help get Democratic members comfortable, but the reality is that the legislation does not currently have the backing of every member of the caucus and more work still has to be done.

Democratic aides warn that next few weeks will test the party’s resolve in hammering out complicated issues as a caucus.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has pledged to bring the bill to the floor in the next work period, but divisions within his own caucus could make that a risky political move. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the only Democrat who is not a co-sponsor of the original legislation, but other Democrats have expressed concerns with the current draft of the bill in private meetings. One of those, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, raised his issues at a private Democratic meeting last month, arguing that the bill still needed to be changed in certain places in order to take what had been a messaging bill from the House a practical piece of legislation.

One of the areas that some Democrats have argued needs to be retooled is requirements on when states have to convert from paperless voting machines, which have been deemed too high a security risk, but may take time to overhaul. Another concern has been whether some of the requirements related to the timeline states and localities have to adapt to new requirements around early voting and automatic voter registration are too fast. The For the People Act also makes sweeping changes to how congressional candidates can finance their elections and creates a new system that would allow congressional candidates to opt into a system for small donor public financing.

In the Senate Rules Committee, Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar sought to make some of those changes in a manager’s amendment. But that amendment failed in committee and the bill stalled. The changes in that amendment, however, give insight into the ways the bill may be retooled.

One of the areas that was overhauled in the manager’s amendment was when states had to automatically register individuals to vote. The amendment also pulled out a previous requirement that allowed states to go back one time and register individuals in their systems who weren’t already on the voter rolls. The amendment also sought to lower the requirements for how many early voting days were required in areas with a population less than 3,000 residents. Rural election officials had argued that requiring 15 days of early voting was too expensive.

Those are just a few of the examples of the changes Democrats could pursue.

Over the last month, Democrats have held two caucus-wide meetings on the issue. And while Manchin has shown no indication he is warming to the bill, arguing he prefers the John Lewis Voting Rights Act instead, the moderate West Virginia Democrat isn’t the only thing standing in the bill’s way.

Even if Manchin and every Democrat backed the bill, there still are not 10 Republicans voting for it. Without 60 votes, Democrats would have to let the bill fail or be willing to override the Senate’s filibuster on the issue, something several Democrats have shown no appetite in allowing, even as more liberal members including Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia have argued it is a matter of protecting Democracy to pass the bill.

Still, the debate over the voting rights bill coupled with the recent defeat of a bill to establish a commission to investigate the deadly January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection are pushing Democrats further into discussions of where to go from here and whether defending the filibuster can be maintained if Republicans won’t vote with them on key issues they see as critical in President Joe Biden’s agenda.

During the last Democratic caucus meeting on the For the People Act last week, one source told CNN that Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, gave a spirited speech to his colleagues to think about the limits of the filibuster especially when it came to voting rights.

Manchin won't let Democrats unwind the filibuster. So the GOP will do away with it later

And, Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, made a passionate plea asking members opposed what they would need to get to “yes.”

“There is more conversation now on filibuster, but you still have to make the case to some of our members that the filibuster is an obstacle to bipartisan compromise and I don’t think that has happened yet,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.

When he does bring the voting rights bill to the floor at the end of the month, Schumer will have a series of options at his disposal. Because the bill failed to pass out of committee, he can bring the original bill to the floor or could work with his caucus on making changes to the existing bill before he files it. Schumer could also oversee a process to allow a robust amendment process on the Senate floor.



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