Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday that he plans to put forward a proposal to change Senate rules to allow for a “talking filibuster” once Republicans block the voting legislation that Democrats are trying to pass.
Since that would change the current 60-vote threshold set by the filibuster and allow the Senate to move to a simple majority vote, moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are expected to oppose it and scuttle the effort.
The announcement by Schumer sets up a major showdown in the Senate among Democrats as the party gears up to put two of its own members on the spot in an effort that appears doomed to fail and comes as liberal activists demand action on voting rights.
Democrats, who control only 50 seats in the Senate, don’t have the votes to pass voting legislation on their own, and they also do not have the votes to change Senate rules to get rid of the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold for most legislation amid opposition from the pair of Democratic moderates. But despite the divisions within the party, Democrats are pressing ahead in an effort to send a message about their commitment to the issue of voting rights.
Manchin rejects rule change
Ahead of Schumer’s announcement, Manchin indicated that he is not on board with the new plan to gut the filibuster, effectively sinking the effort before it was even publicly unveiled.
Manchin rejected the idea of using the nuclear option – which would entail a party line vote – to create a new rule that would force senators to hold the floor and eventually allow a simple majority to advance an elections bill once the talking filibuster is over.
“That’s never happened in the history of our country,” Manchin said. “You know, basically, there’s never been a simple majority vote to basically get off a debate.”
He added: “I don’t know how you break a rule to make a rule.”
When asked by CNN if the White House and Democratic leaders have their priorities in line given concerns over inflation and Covid, Manchin said of voters, “They’re concerned about inflation.”
“It’s real,” he said. This is not something made up – it’s real. And basically Covid – It’s extremely hard on everybody. And getting people back to work has been extremely hard. …. These are things we should be working on … So I would think, get your priorities in order – we all should.”
Schumer later defended Democrats’ focus on the effort to pass voting bills and change Senate rules and argued the Senate will also move to address economic issues.
“We’re not abandoning the other issues, we can do more than one,” the New York Democrat said. “But to abandon voting rights, when you have seen how important it is in the country, when it is the wellspring of our democracy, when it is so vital to bringing full equality in this country, and racism has been the poison of America, would be a disgrace. We’re not abandoning it. We will do other things as well.”
“On something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office,” Schumer said. “They’ve got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights.”
Explaining how the proposal would work, he said, “Once members of the minority party have exhausted all of their speaking rights and defended their position on the Senate floor, the debate will have run its course and the Senate will move to vote on final passage at a majority threshold, which has always been the threshold for final passage,” he said. The Senate majority leader added that he hopes every senator will “embrace this practical reform.”
Schumer indicated that the talking filibuster proposal would only apply to the voting legislation Democrats are currently pushing for a vote on. When asked if the proposed rules change would allow for a talking filibuster only on the voting legislation that is now under debate, he said “correct.”
Debate begins on voting bill
As the chamber returned after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Schumer earlier in the day Tuesday started debate on House-passed voting rights legislation and warned that “the eyes of the nation will be watching what happens this week in the United States Senate.”
“Senate Democrats are under no illusion that we face difficult odds, especially when virtually every Senate Republican is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote,” Schumer said. “But I want to be clear: when this chamber confronts a question this important, one so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy, you don’t slide it off the table and say, never mind.”
President Joe Biden has put a spotlight on voting rights in recent days, despite the challenge facing his party and at a time when other key elements of his domestic agenda are stalled.
Last week, Biden vowed to keep fighting during a visit to Capitol Hill but conceded that he doesn’t know if Democrats will be able to pass legislation they are pushing for.
“I hope we can get this done. The honest to God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said. “I hope we can get this done, but I’m not sure. But one thing for certain, like every other major civil rights bill that came along if we miss the first time we can come back and try a second time.”
Advocates and activists call for action
Ahead of the expected Senate vote on election legislation, advocates and activists are making their case and appealing directly to lawmakers.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson sent a letter to senators on Tuesday imploring them to “preserve democracy.”
“Last year, state legislators introduced 440 voter suppression bills across the country, and many were successfully etched in law. Efforts to suppress voters have only intensified in this new year,” Johnson wrote.
Separately, five well known sports figures, including famed basketball player Jerry West, penned a letter to Manchin asking him to help pass voting rights legislation.
They said the bill is “urgently needed legislation that will protect both the rights of voters and the integrity of outcomes in all Federal elections.”
About 30 voting rights protesters were arrested by Capitol police on Tuesday after breaching the plaza perimeter and singing protest songs on the Senate steps.
They were there to call on the Senate to pass the combined this week this week. Protesters adapted traditional songs to include Manchin, Sinema and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s names, singing “go tell Sinema we shall not be moved,” “go tell Manchin,” and “ain’t gonna let McConnell turn me around.” They also chanted that “the filibuster has got to go.”
Some of those arrested are participating in a hunger strike and carried a sign saying that they are on day 13.
Capitol Police gave them their first warning about 10 minutes after they sat down and began arresting them after their third warning. Protesters were zip-tied and loaded into USCP marked vans to be taken offsite for processing.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Eva McKend, Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.