WASHINGTON — Democrats are mounting an impassioned bid to overhaul Senate rules that stand in the way of their sweeping voting legislation, arguing dark forces unleashed by Donald Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election demand an extraordinary response.
In fiery speeches and interviews, President Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats have seized on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection as a reason to advance their long-stalled voting, ethics and elections package. Senate Republicans, who have repeatedly blocked the legislation, excoriate the measures as a “partisan power grab” and warn that any rule changes will haunt Democrats someday under a GOP majority.
Trump’s false claims of a stolen election not only incited the mob that stormed the Capitol, Democrats say. His unrelenting campaign of disinformation also sparked a GOP effort to pass new state laws that have made it more difficult to vote, while in some cases rendering the administration of elections more susceptible to political influence.
Democrats’ voting legislation would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation, striking down hurdles to voting enacted in the name of election security, reducing the influence of big money in politics and limiting partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts. The package would create national election standards that would trump the state-level GOP laws. It would also restore the ability of the Justice Department to police election laws in states with a history of discrimination.
Many Democrats say the moment has come to act decisively in what they view as the civil rights fight of the era. Changing Senate rules early in 2022 offers perhaps the last best chance to counteract Republicans' state-level push before the midterm elections, when Democrats' House majority and slim hold in the 50-50 Senate could be wiped out.
“If Republicans continue to hijack the rules of the chamber to prevent us from protecting our democracy, then the Senate will debate and consider changes to the rules,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday.
Yet what action they will take remains highly uncertain, depending on the often elusive support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Key Democrats have been meeting with Manchin for weeks, brainstorming options while also enlisting outside allies to lobby his support.
Manchin has made no firm commitments. He has repeatedly said he will not support lowering the filibuster's 60-vote threshold for passing most legislation, a stance shared by fellow centrist Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. Until the threshold is lowered, enacting election legislation could prove difficult, if not impossible.
But Democrats say they are focused on what's achievable now, amid escalating pressure from allies for action. Even modest changes to Senate rules, they say, would be a significant step forward.
Leaning into the fight, Biden is set to deliver a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday focused on voting rights. And Schumer has added to the civil rights symbolism by setting the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, on Jan. 17, as the deadline to either pass the voting legislation or consider revising the rules. The Senate is likely to hold a series of test votes this week intended to underscore Republican opposition.
“I'm not going to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ because I don’t know what votes will come to the floor," Manchin said last week, noting that he has supported some changes to Senate rules in the past. One proposal Democrats are discussing would eliminate the filibuster on the so-called “motion to proceed” that is needed before a bill can be debated on the Senate floor.
Republicans say invoking the Jan. 6 insurrection is offensive. The voting bills, they say, were largely written before the attack and include a liberal wish list of priorities that will do little to combat vulnerabilities in the law exposed by Trump's attempts to overturn the election.
“It is beyond distasteful for some of our colleagues to ham-fistedly invoke the Jan. 6 anniversary to advance these aims," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “The fact that violent criminals broke the law does not entitle Senate Democrats to break the Senate.”
The renewed focus on voting rights comes as much of Biden's agenda has stalled out in Congress. Before Christmas, Manchin singlehandedly halted work on Biden's roughly $2 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives, delaying the bill indefinitely.
Civil rights activists are deeply frustrated by the turn of events, saying precious months have been wasted. They view the GOP-backed changes in voting laws as a subtler form of ballot restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes once used to disenfranchise Black voters, a key Democratic constituency.
“Unfortunately many policymakers have not truly appreciated the gravity of where we are in this nation at this moment,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in an interview, singling out both Biden's White House as well as Senate Democrats. “African Americans have seen this before. We've experienced this before. We must get beyond procedural conversations and get to the substance of protecting this fragile thing called democracy.”
McConnell has ridiculed "scary stories that liberal activists keep repeating about how democracy is at death’s door.” He recently dangled the possibility of narrower bipartisan action to shore up a convoluted 19th century law called the Electoral Count Act that governs the certification of presidential elections — a law Trump sought to exploit to overthrow his 2020 defeat. A compromise on that could be attractive to Manchin, who has said any election legislation ought to be enacted on a bipartisan basis.
Last week, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine held bipartisan talks with Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as Manchin and fellow Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. An update to the Electoral Count Act was part of the discussion, according to a Collins spokeswoman.
Democrats have blasted the GOP overture on the Electoral Count Act as a “cynical” political maneuver aimed at doing the bare minimum at the federal level while leaving laws in place in GOP-controlled swing states like Georgia.
“What good is it to certify the election, if I don’t get to cast my vote in the first place?” said Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, the first African American to represent Georgia in the Senate. He is up for reelection this year.
Republicans warn that Democrats will come to regret any changes to the filibuster, which is intended to foster compromise by making legislation intentionally difficult to pass.
“They barely have a majority now,” said Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, the chamber's No. 2 Republican. “Even the strongest majorities eventually end up back in the minority.”