Senate Democrats are desperately searching for a way to pass voting legislation amid pressure from President Joe Biden, but the path ahead looks increasingly grim with influential moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema unlikely to support a rules change necessary to get the bills over the finish line despite a frantic lobbying campaign from their own party.
Biden called on the Senate to change its filibuster rules in a forceful speech on Tuesday and is coming to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet with Senate Democrats to discuss the voting rights push. Senate Democrats are also holding a series of meetings on the issue, but so far Manchin and Sinema, two Democratic senators who have long expressed opposition to eliminating the 60-vote threshold for most legislation, appear unmoved.
Despite the fact that the effort appears doomed to fail, Democrats are now gearing up to implement a plan where the House will first pass voting legislation and then send it to the Senate. Democrats would then need 60 votes to break a filibuster to move to final passage, setting the stage for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to try to force a vote to change the rules.
Voting bills are a major priority for liberal activists and voters, but Democrats have continually run up against a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate where the 50 votes that Democrats control is not enough to pass the bills as long as the filibuster remains in place.
As Democrats now push to change filibuster rules, the party is again hitting a wall, but this time from within their own ranks.
Manchin and Sinema have repeatedly voiced concerns over the long-term ramifications for the country if a majority could work its will over the minority party without being reined in by the filibuster. And Manchin has indicated that any rules changes should only be done on a bipartisan basis.
The dynamic has created a seemingly immovable obstacle for Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the Senate and House – and face enormous pressure to pass voting legislation.
The party recently suffered another major blow to Biden’s agenda when Manchin said he could not support the Build Back Better Act, sweeping legislation to expand the social safety net and fight climate change. The legislation had stood as a centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda, but it is now unclear whether Democrats will be able to pick up the pieces and salvage any of the it.
As the clock ticks down to the 2022 midterm elections, it is also likely to become increasingly difficult for Democrats to pass any kind of major legislation.
Schumer outlines next steps
Schumer outlined the next steps in the effort to pass voting legislation and change Senate rules in a memo sent to Senate Democrats on Wednesday and obtained by CNN.
In the memo, Schumer explains that the House will act first and send over to the Senate a piece of legislation that includes both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The process Democrats plan to use will allow them to skip an initial procedural vote in the Senate and get onto the bill with 51 votes.
After that, though, Democrats would still need 60 votes to break a filibuster to move to final passage of the legislation, which won’t happen since 10 Senate Republicans do not support the voting legislation.
At that point, Schumer could then move to change Senate rules, an effort expected to fail amid opposition from Manchin and Sinema.
‘Intense’ meetings with Manchin and Sinema
Democratic talks with Manchin and Sinema have been “intense,” a Senate source who attended the meetings told CNN, but they have not had any breakthroughs on gutting the 60-vote threshold to pass bills that would overhaul voting laws. As a result, Democratic leaders have not decided on which rules change to vote on yet.
“We have gone back-and-forth and up-and-down,” the source said.
Manchin on Wednesday declined to give his views about Biden’s speech other than saying it was a “good speech.”
Sinema had no comment on Biden’s speech, but a spokesperson told CNN that her position hasn’t changed: She still opposes eliminating the 60-vote threshold but is open to discussing ideas to improve the way the Senate works.
Schumer said on Wednesday that meetings with Manchin and Sinema continue as they “try to come to a place” where 50 senators can support both Democrats’ elections bills as well as a Senate rules change to pass them. He said, however, “we’re not there yet.”
The New York Democrat indicated that he is prepared to hold a vote no matter where the discussions land.
Schumer has previously set a deadline of January 17 – Martin Luther King Jr. Day – for the Senate to vote on a rules change if Republicans continue to block voting rights legislation..
“I wouldn’t want to delude anybody into thinking this is easy, but we’re trying to come to a place where 50 senators can support two bills – the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Act – and with a change in the rules, so we can get the votes to pass these bills into law,” Schumer said.
What rules changes Democrats will vote on
While Democratic leaders have not yet decided on which rules changes to vote on, Democrats have focused mainly on instituting a so-called talking filibuster, forcing senators to hold the floor if they want to filibuster — or a carveout, which would allow voting rights legislation to be advanced by a simple majority.
But in private discussions, Schumer has expressed concern about the structure of the talking filibuster proposal, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.
One of the sources said Schumer has conveyed that if a talking filibuster is not correctly structured, it would be difficult to close out debate and move to a final up-or-down vote on legislation overhauling voting laws.
To change the rules would require 67 votes, something that won’t happen given the staunch GOP opposition. Or they can change the rules through a complicated parliamentary process known as the “nuclear option” with just 51 votes. But Manchin and Sinema are opposed to using the nuclear option.
Manchin and Sinema have not been in favor of anything that would reduce the 60-vote threshold. Manchin has been open to more modest revisions, such as eliminating the filibuster on opening debate and making the new filibuster threshold three-fifths of those present and voting, rather than 60.
But he has opposed changing the rules via party lines, instead seeking to do so by 67 votes under regular order.
“We need some good rules changes,” Manchin said Wednesday
Sinema met with Democrats on Tuesday night and also will gather Wednesday
Most Republicans have dismissed the Democratic voting bills as partisan overreach and have lined up in opposition.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Biden’s speech pushing for the Senate to change its filibuster rules to pass voting and elections legislation, saying Biden compared “a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors.”
“How profoundly — profoundly — unpresidential,” McConnell said. “I’ve known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at the podium yesterday.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Alex Rogers, Ali Zaslav, Ted Barrett, Daniella Diaz and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.