After months of build-up, Democrats are boxed in on their party’s signature election reform plan. And there’s no apparent escape route.
Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ sweeping ethics and elections legislation on Tuesday, a filibuster that many in President Joe Biden’s party hoped would turbocharge the demise of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for most bills. But Democratic moderates’ support of the filibuster has only hardened in recent days, culminating in an emphatic defense of the supermajority requirement by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on the eve of Tuesday’s vote.
Liberals eager to change the minds of Sinema, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and nearly a dozen other senators reluctant to eliminate or reform the filibuster had staked their success on a series of Republican blockades on former President Donald Trump’s impeachment, a Jan. 6 commission, equal pay standards and most notably, the elections bill dubbed “S1.”
In today’s 50-50 Senate, Democrats would need every single one of their members to vote in favor of any changes to the rules, and there is no sign that’s close to happening.
It gets worse for Biden’s party: Now that the GOP has rejected debating the legislation that would overhaul federal elections, Democrats are without a new strategy to show party activists some momentum before the 2022 midterms. At the moment, the party doesn't have a backup plan on elections and Democratic senators acknowledged their internal maneuvering over the filibuster has only begun after months of dominating their time in control of Washington.
“There doesn’t seem to be much of a path to getting any Republican votes on voting reforms. So what does that leave?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It leaves a conversation in the caucus about whether you want to give Republicans the authority to continue to strip away from people the right to vote.”
Democratic leaders have told members that Tuesday’s vote is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end. And some Senate Democrats took it as a positive sign that all 50 members of the caucus — including Manchin — were united in Tuesday’s vote.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not detail next steps during Tuesday’s private caucus meeting, according to an attendee. But later on the floor, he said that Democrats will “have several, serious options for how to reconsider this issue" and "are going to explore every last one.”
Many in his caucus are desperate to find a path forward. “A body that won’t defend itself from an internal attack hardly deserves the name of a U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “No consequences for Trump, no impeachment, no censure, no January 6 commission ... no agreement on voting rights.”
Potential backup plans after the filibuster include breaking up the elections bill into pieces to force more votes on the GOP or waiting until the fall to push a voting-rights-specific bill. Democrats could also put elections spending in a party-line budget reconciliation bill.
But on Tuesday evening success looked far off, even as Democrats vowed not to give up after Schumer promised that “failure is not an option.” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters that “the fight is not over.”
In the meantime, the Senate is left with a handful of bipartisan gangs negotiating critical legislation on infrastructure and policing — and a lot of angry progressives who want to exercise their party’s power while they still have full control of Congress.
I understand the actual problem is Republicans voting to make sure that Republican states can caontinue to disenfranchise millions, but we've wasted five months to get to a guaranteed failure point, and everyone is asking "So now what?"
That question should have been answered months ago.