Senate Democrats this week are finally beginning to move on their show-stopping election reform legislation, the For the People Act—for which they reserved the symbolic bill number of S. 1 out of the 1,500-plus bills that have been introduced this session. The sweeping measure is the Democrats’ counteroffensive to Republicans’ long-running strategy of voter discouragement and lax federal election oversight. It would expand voter registration and voting options, vastly increase public financing of campaigns, require independent redistricting commissions to combat gerrymandering, relieve gridlock on the Federal Election Commission by giving it an odd number of commissioners, and much more. It is the companion legislation to H.R. 1, which the House passed in March on a nearly perfect party-line vote.
Before it can reform democracy nationwide, though, the For the People Act has to somehow survive the less-than-democratic dynamics of the Senate itself. The Senate Rules Committee, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, considered the bill Tuesday morning in a markup that lasted all day. The final committee vote on the bill deadlocked at 9–9, but the majority will still have the opportunity to bring it to the floor.
In a sign of how existential each party considers the bill, both Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who usually have better things to do, attended the markup. Schumer argued that the legislation was necessary to combat “an attempt at the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.” McConnell, who recently described defeating the For the People Act as his top priority of this Congress, said the measure was “a partisan effort to take over how you conduct elections in our country” and argued that “democracy is not in crisis, and we aren’t going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it.”
Neither side is leaving much in the tank. And it’s a lot of hoopla for a bill that has—to be generous—an exceedingly slim path to becoming law.
As it stands, S. 1 theoretically has 49 votes. We say “theoretically” because even though that’s the total number of sponsors and co-sponsors, there has been more behind-the-scenes grumbling about it. The one Democratic vote that the For the People Act certainly does not have is that of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. While there’s much within the legislation that Manchin likes, he’s been adamant that he’s not on board with overhauling elections on a partisan basis.
“How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” Manchin told Vox in a recent interview. He said it would “guarantee” an increase in mistrust in elections and lead to more “anarchy” like the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. “I just believe with all my heart and soul that’s what would happen, and I’m not going to be part of it.”
Should Democrats find a way to get Manchin and other nervous members on board—and Klobuchar has put forth an amended version of the bill that would address many of the more practical concerns with the first draft—they then have another problem: They’re still 10 votes short of breaking a filibuster.
“Unless you’re prepared to change the rules of the Senate, this federal takeover of elections doesn’t have any hope of passing,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking member of the Rules Committee, told reporters during a break from the markup. “At some point in the future, the majority leader will have to decide if he wants to bring a bill to the floor that can’t possibly pass unless there’s a change to the Senate rules.”
Democrats have even fewer votes to change the rules than they do to pass S. 1. Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, most notably, have been so consistent in their opposition to weakening or eliminating the legislative filibuster—which Democrats could do with 50 votes—that it might be worth believing them. The pressure on them will grow significantly as Republicans refuse to budge on S. 1. But Manchin represents West Virginia, where he’s not very susceptible to progressive pressure, and Sinema is proudly displaying jewelry that says “fuck off.”
Republicans are leaving nothing to chance, though, and part of the reason they’re so vigorously on the attack against the bill, rather than just trusting the filibuster to kill it for them, is to try to tank its popularity and make it easier for Manchin and Sinema to hold the line against rules changes. Not all arguments against the bill are as compelling as others. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, said during today’s markup that it was S. 1 that was the real “Jim Crow 2.0,” as it would “register millions of illegal aliens to vote,” thus diluting the voting power of citizens. This is not in the bill.
So then. What’s the plan?
“I’ll let you guys make those judgments,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said when asked if there’s any path for passing it with the filibuster not going anywhere.
Senate Democrats are scheduled to hold a caucus meeting on S. 1 on Thursday. An aide said this was simply the first opportunity for the caucus to get together in person and discuss the bill, not an occasion where grand strategic decisions would be made. At some point soon, though, Democrats will have to have that meeting where grand strategic decisions are made. It is possible—and Manchin is more supportive of this—that they could shift their emphasis away from S. 1 and toward a separate bill, a restoration of the Voting Rights Act. That is something about which Republicans are at least open to having a conversation, as Blunt told reporters today that “that’s certainly a much more likely success path for” Democrats.
The S. 1 conversation has been unusual in how the reality of the whip count has clashed with Democrats’ projection of optimism. Typically when a party realizes how slim the chances of something passing are, they seek to lower expectations. Schumer, however, has been saying that “failure is not an option” and that “we cannot fail to pass S. 1, and we will, we will.”
In his opening remarks on the Senate floor on Monday, though, Schumer’s pledge was more measured.
“Make no mistake—we are moving forward with S. 1 in the Rules Committee this week,” he said. “I will attend the markup tomorrow. And as a reminder to my colleagues: I have committed to bring S. 1 to the floor of the Senate.” Unless a switch that doesn’t currently exist on Manchin and Sinema flips, that will be as far as it goes.