• Michael McAuliff

Schumer Sets Up Voting Rights Showdown

In an early Wednesday morning move on the heels of passing a $3.5 trillion budget resolution, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer teed up what could be a highly consequential showdown on voting rights for mid-September, moving to start work on the Senate's For The People Act when it returns from the August recess.


Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

Schumer's step -- holding a partisan 50 to 49 vote to discharge the For The People Act to the Senate floor from the evenly divided Senate Rules Committee, where it's been stuck -- comes as tensions over voting have continued to rise, with GOP-led legislators seeking to pass new voting restrictions all across the country.


In Texas on Tuesday, Republican state lawmakers decided to authorize arrest warrants for Democrats who have fled the state to prevent passage of especially stiff voting restrictions.


"Let me be very clear: this is a debate the Senate must have," Schumer said near 4 in the morning in bringing up the motion on the bill -- numbered S. 1 as a signal of its importance to Democrats.


"In America today, we are witnessing the most sweeping and coordinated attacks on voting rights since the era of Jim Crow," Schumer said. "Reactionary Republican legislatures are making it harder for poorer, younger, and nonwhite Americans to vote, while at the same time making it easier for partisan actors to steal an election. Senate Democrats are not going to stand by while this happens."


Schumer was referring not just to the voting restrictions Republicans have championed in the wake for former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud, but also moves in some states and districts to remove election overseers, and replace them with Republican partisans.


At the same time, all states are preparing to draw new congressional districts based on the new census, and most are led by Republican legislatures.


While Senate Democrats are in agreement that Republicans are overreaching in discriminatory and undemocratic fashion, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin opposes some of the provisions of S.1.


And no Republicans back it.


The combination sets up a tricky problem for Schumer. Voting Rights legislation cannot be tacked into budget reconciliation, which Democrats can advance on a simple majority because of budget rules. The only way S.1 could advance would likely be though ending the filibuster. Manchin also opposes that step.


Yet Democrats and their voters are adamant in demanding reforms to a system where Democrats can get millions more votes than the GOP, and still lose control of Congress and the White House, and which is flooded more and more by billions of dollars in unregulated, secret donations.


To succeed, Schumer first must shepherd onto the floor an election reform that Manchin would support. To get the West Virginian's support in starting, Schumer pledged to swap out the current For The People Act text once Manchin and his fellow Democrats cut a deal.


That may be difficult, since Manchin thinks Republicans have valid concerns about election integrity, even if he thinks they're going too far.


"I firmly believe that we need commonsense voter ID requirements, just like we have in West Virginia that strengthen the security of our elections without making it harder for Americans to vote," Manchin said before backing Schumer's move. "I also firmly believe that we shouldn't politicize the Federal Elections Commission, prohibit any guardrails on vote by mail, or prevent local election officials from doing basic maintenance of voter rolls."


Democrats want to change the FEC so that it is no longer evenly divided between the parties, thereby preventing the deadlocked votes that have stalled many of its actions. They also argue most voter ID laws target Democratic voters, and that voter-roll purges are most often used against minorities and young people who vote Democratic.


Yet they will have to find a way to accommodate Manchin. Schumer said at a news conference later that Democrats were making progress in talks with Manchin, Tim Kaine (Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine).


They will also have to find a way to convince him and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) that whatever the package is, passing it is important enough to end the filibuster, which both oppose.


One part of doing so is showing that Republicans will oppose even the simplest, most popular reforms. Schumer began that early Wednesday by asking unanimous consent to start work on two bills, one to reform gerrymandering rules to create less-partisan congressional districts and one to require better disclosure of election spending. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) objected.


Schumer highlighted that fact in his press conference, and suggested ending the filibuster remains on the table.


"We have made progress, and we are showing very clearly to every one of our 50 senators that Republicans won't join us. And yet the importance of voting rights, if anything, has strengthened in the minds of everybody -- everybody," Schumer said. "We're going to keep at it. And as I've said before, everything -- everything -- is on the table."


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made clear that the GOP will not bend on S.1, and will try to use Democratic efforts to pass it to their own advantage.


"After ramming through this reckless taxing and spending spree, here in the dead of night, they also want to start tearing up the ground rules of our democracy and writing new ones, of course on a purely partisan basis," McConnell said. "I suppose the timing actually makes sense, given the terrible votes that every Democratic senator's just cast here tonight. I can understand why their thoughts have turned so quickly to their next elections, and why they might be feeling especially anxious to tilt the playing field in their direction."


He repeated the GOP position that Democrats want to "federalize" elections and take them over in all 50 states.


"Maybe this is just concluding the night with a little comic relief. S. 1 is an absurd and clumsy effort by one political party to literally rewrite the ground rules of our democracy to try to advantage them and disadvantage the other side," McConnell said.


He also alluded to the likely coming showdown among Democrats over the filibuster.


"It's always a temptation when in the majority to want to write the rules to make it more likely you can get the outcome you want," McConnell said. "This isn't going to work. It isn't going to work tonight, and it isn't going to work when we get back.”


It did work in the early morning vote that kept Manchin in line. Schumer will have a harder time advancing the full bill.


In talking about similar difficulties he may have in keeping all 50 Democrats on board for reconciliation -- Manchin and Sinema have suggested it should be smaller -- Schumer offered a sense of how his is operating overall.


"Every member of our caucus realizes that unity is our strength," Schumer said. "With 50 votes, at a time when Republicans on too many issues refuse to cooperate at all, as you saw last night, we all need to be unified. And everyone knows that. So that doesn't mean don't fight for their beliefs. But at the end of the day we have to come together. Thus far we have."