Schumer is raising the pressure on Manchin and Sinema — and has a plan to force debate on voting rights

Schumer is raising the pressure on Manchin and Sinema — and has a plan to force debate on voting rights
(Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden, joined by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to the press and departs the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, July 14, 2021, en route to the White House.


Congressional Democrats have determined how to get the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts to the Senate floor for actual debate, something the Republicans have been blocking for months. It will allow the Democrats to skip the first, most undemocratic block Republicans have been using on this and all the other legislation: refusing to provide enough votes to even allow the Senate to proceed to debate on a bill. The process will allow Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, probably, to achieve his aim of having a vote on challenging the filibuster for these bills on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It will force debate on the issue so that Republicans won’t be able to just silently block the bills without having to decide whether they’ll stand on the Senate floor and argue against the concept of free and fair elections, against the principle of “one person, one vote” or if they’ll be cowards and refuse to show up. It will also increase pressure on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema as Senate Democrats unite on the floor to make the case for saving democracy.

Here’s how it works: the House passes a bill that combines the two pieces of legislation, using a separate bill that has already been passed by the Senate and House and is being reconciled between the two bodies, but is not passed in a final form. They’ll use this bill, in this case a NASA bill, as a shell to carry the voting rights and elections reforms bills. Does it matter that it’s not the same legislation? No. Whatever the House adds in and passes as H.R.5746 - NASA Enhanced Use Leasing Extension Act of 2021 is the bill they pass and is technically and legislatively considered the NASA bill the Senate passed.

Because the Senate has already passed it, and the House and Senate have sent it back and forth as “messages” the requisite number of times, the motion to proceed to the bill cannot be filibustered—just 51 votes will bring the bill to the floor to debate. Republicans can’t kill it even before it gets a debate.

“The Senate will finally debate voting rights legislation, and then every senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass the legislation to protect our democracy,” Schumer wrote in a memo sent to Senate Democrats and obtained by several news organizations Wednesday. “With this procedure, we will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation—something that Republicans have thus far denied,” Schumer said. “Of course, to ultimately end debate and pass the voting rights legislation, we will need 10 Republicans to join us—which we know from past experience will not happen—or we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before.”

That’s the rub—while Republicans can’t avoid the debate, but they can filibuster at the other end. There has to be a vote to move from debate to final passage, and that requires 60 votes. This is the point at which Schumer will likely move to change the rules, and where Manchin and Sinema will be put on the spot. This process is likely going to take a few days to play out, keeping the Senate in session over the weekend and setting up a potential Monday showdown on the filibuster.

That’s Monday, which is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Schumer doesn’t lay out in the memo just how he would try to change the filibuster—restore the talking filibuster, carve out an exemption for elections and voting related issues, etc.—or exactly when the votes will occur. The Senate is likely to be in all weekend hashing that out and trying to find a process Manchin and Sinema might agree to. If they don’t agree to that process, the failure of this critical legislation will be on their heads. That’s the leverage Schumer is trying to bring to bear here.

There’s also going to be pressure on Sinema back home, so she won’t be able to escape there this weekend. Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., will lead a march in Phoenix on Saturday calling for voting rights. The march is organized by Deliver for Voting Rights, which is also holding a march in D.C. on Monday.

The marches will “call on President Biden and the Senate to urgently pass federal voting rights legislation,” breaking the filibuster if needed. “From the Civil War to the Jim Crow era, the filibuster has blocked popular bills to stop lynching, end poll taxes, and fight workplace discrimination,” the organization said. “Now it’s being used to block voting rights. The weaponization of the filibuster is racism cloaked in procedure and it must go.”

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