What’s at stake is not only the party’s promise on a key issue, but also potentially the future Democratic majorities. Many in the party privately worry that frontline Democrats, like Warnock or House Democrats vulnerable to redistricting, could lose their seats if Congress doesn’t send a federal election and ethics bill to President Joe Biden’s desk by this summer.
The issue took up much of Democrats’ last in-person lunch before the recess, several senators said. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) urged those in his caucus that want changes to submit their revisions to Senate Rules Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and chief sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as soon as possible.
“‘If you’ve got any concerns about this bill, take it to Merkley and take it to Amy before the mark-up,’” Kaine recalled telling his party. “You want to have a bill that’s a complete unifier among the Dems. That means no sandbagging, no coming up with objections or concerns later.”
Though the bill has 49 co-sponsors, a Democratic source said a handful of Democrats still have some reservations. Not signing on, however, would risk public blowback from the left. And Manchin, the most-reluctant Democrat, wants to reimagine the bill’s focus.
He said “there’s a lot of good stuff” in the larger bill but said the party should concentrate on the voting rights standalone bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
The Congressional Black Caucus is considering such a strategy and Manchin advised Democrats to come up with “one piece of legislation that really basically has accessibility, security and fairness in it. And I think we can.” Warnock is making his own entreaties to Manchin and said his colleague knows “how urgent this is.”
Democratic leaders have continued heaping attention on the wider voting rights bill even as its prospects dim. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said “failure is not an option” on the package and wants to put the bill on the floor by August to give states time to implement it.
Schumer told the New York Times’ Ezra Klein that if Republicans don’t work with Democrats then “the choice is starker and we have to see how that evolves.” But he added that “in the past when that has happened we’ve stuck together and produced a good result.”
At this point, progressives won’t accept defeat no matter how many trillions of dollars in spending the Democratic Party enacts with its slim Senate and House majorities.
“No amount of reconciliation success will excuse Democrats’ failure on this front and they will go down in history as the ‘peace in our time’ party of appeasers in an era of rising racist fascism,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, a progressive group.
But without killing the 60-vote threshold, the “For the People Act” is going nowhere. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) vocally oppose gutting the filibuster; a number of other Democrats are skeptical. Optimists think the bill could be the catalyst toward revisions to the Senate rules.
The “For the People Act” would create some federally-mandated voting rules and require no-excuse mail voting and in-person early voting. It also establishes a public financing system. The more focused John Lewis bill would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions receive approval from the Justice Department or D.C. District court before making changes to voting laws.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was the only Senate Republican who co-sponsored the Lewis voting rights bill last year. Otherwise, Republicans have shown little interest.
With those math problems and internal divisions in mind, some Democrats questioned the party’s strategy. One Democratic senator, who requested anonymity, worried that the party could be seen as bluffing if it can’t follow through. That senator said that “the goal of the authors is to get it signed into law. I don’t see a path.”
“I’ve never understood it. Task one, go figure out if you can go out and get 50 votes. Task two, go out and see if there’s any path towards ending the filibuster over this. And I don’t see it,” the senator said. “The country would be better off if we can pass the whole damn thing. My concerns are primarily: What can we possibly get to pass this place?”
Other Democrats conceded they aren’t sure what the grand plan is. Is it to use voting rights as the pivot point to changing the filibuster, an already uphill battle? Or is it a vote intended to unite the party and embarrass Republicans when they block it?
“We have to change the filibuster” to move forward on it, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“I’ve had conversations with Schumer about it. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to end. There’s an urgency for it,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Republicans will argue during the committee vote that voter ID rules are popular and publicly financed elections are not. Rules Committee Ranking Member Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said his party is readying votes on as many as 100 amendments and will make the process “painful” for Democrats.
“It’s hard to believe they really expect to pass this,” said Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state.
Some election experts have questioned how realistic implementing such sweeping changes before the midterms would be. Democrats are working with that in mind.
“We’ve been taking input from secretaries of state … there’s a lot of things we want to make sure they can roll out effectively between now and next year’s primaries. So we’ll be addressing a number of those things,” Merkley said.
But short of a complete 180 from Republicans, they would eventually block the bill from even being debated. Some see that vote as a fuse for the filibuster fight that’s been hanging over the party’s control of Washington. But that would require buy-in from every single Democratic senator and massive reversals from Sinema and Manchin.
And while Democrats have widely condemned the slew of election bills introduced by GOP state legislatures in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud, some say it’s too early to know whether those laws will actually pose an existential threat to Democrats’ political fortunes.
As a second Democratic senator put it: “It’s not clear to me that it’s actually true that all is doomed if we don’t pass S1.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.