Politics

Senate Democrats May Have Time, but They Have No Plan

The vote on the For the People Act went exactly as predicted.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks about the For the People Act at the Capitol in Washington, DC on June 22, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks about the For the People Act at the Capitol in Washington, DC on June 22, 2021. Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

To speak to a Senate Democrat early this week was to get a lesson in the discipline of staying in the present. What would they do after Tuesday’s procedural vote to open debate on voting rights and election reform, which Senate Republicans would unanimously filibuster? How dare you think so many hours ahead.

“We’ve got to get through the vote today,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who had been negotiating vigorously with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin to bring him on board, said Tuesday morning.

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“We’ll see what happens in today’s vote,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said. “Let’s analyze that after today’s vote.” He added that he wouldn’t try to “get into Schumer’s strategies at this point.”

Perhaps that’s because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s strategy ahead of the vote was also to defer the question about what would come next. After Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a lead author of the For the People Act, said in a press conference that Tuesday’s vote was merely the bell ringing on “round one of the fight to defend our Constitution,” Schumer sharply dismissed questions about what round two would look like.

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“Okay, look, we will have the vote, and then we will discuss our future,” Schumer said. “I’m not going to put the cart before the horse. Right now, the vote is: Will Republicans move to proceed, or are they unanimously against it?”

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Republicans are unanimously against it, as everyone already knew. By the time of the vote late Tuesday afternoon, all that Democratic leaders had managed was to be unanimously for it: They had at least secured Manchin’s vote to open debate on voting rights, avoiding the embarrassment of bipartisan opposition to merely considering legislation they argue is necessary to save American democracy. (That doesn’t mean they had secured consensus on policy—debates between Manchin and the rest of his caucus remain.) But at least they had achieved their talking point that it was Republicans, exclusively, who were hostile toward efforts to alleviate corruption, partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money, and the latest innovation, state and local election subversion. What they had not achieved was any path forward for passing such reforms into law. The 50-50 partisan vote to block debate came 10 votes short of what is needed to break a filibuster.

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The talking point about Republican obstructionism is on a trajectory to be the most Democrats will get on voting rights this Congress. Continued belief that Senate Democrats might possess a secret plan to pass this bill, and that they’re just in the early phases of a process, runs into a mathematical wall. This particular wall could be papered in Washington Post op-eds reiterating the intransigent Democrats’ reasoning for not eliminating the filibuster. Republicans, and this cannot be stressed this enough, have no interest in reaching a compromise on voting rights and election reform. Defeat of the For the People Act, and its cousins, is the delicious smell wafting from the kitchen that gets them out of bed in the morning. The issues that the For the People Act seeks to reform are foundational beliefs and projects of the Republican Party.

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That is why the elimination of the Senate filibuster is the only way to pass some version of this bill. But this bill will not pass, because eliminating the filibuster would require the support of all 50 Democratic senators, and though activists will certainly apply all the pressure they can in the coming months, stalwart Democrats Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema keep telling us they will not budge. Standing against liberal pressure only enhances Manchin’s standing in West Virginia. And Sinema, who wrote her latest op-ed this week defending the filibuster, has two choice words and a curtsy for those who hope to sway her.

The internal Democratic plan to pass a voting rights bill, then, is the same as the public plan: Let time do its work. Or at least, let time, hearings, and more states passing more laws restricting the vote attempt to move Sinema and Manchin. See if something happens.

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Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, when asked about Sinema’s op-ed defending the filibuster, said that she wouldn’t start “banging on my colleagues at the moment” because she was still hoping they would come around on reforming the rules. But she was pretty frank about the consequences of their failure to do so: that this next year-and-a-half of their majority would be their last.

“If we don’t make the changes to the filibuster,” she said, “then I think we are going to look at losing the House and the Senate.”

No wonder they want to stay in the present.

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