Senate Dems Don’t Know How to Salvage Their Voting Bill

·9 min read
Chip Somodevilla
Chip Somodevilla

Senate Democrats acknowledge they have to rework their signature voting and elections bill if it’s going to become law. The problem is: they don’t know what changes are needed, and they may have stumbled into a catch-22 that would make changes futile anyway.

The legislation—titled the “For The People Act” but better known by its bill number, S.1—is finally getting a full vote in the Senate later this month. It almost certainly, however, won’t earn any Republican support. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has promised to get lawmakers on the record, and many liberals hope the event will generate momentum toward ending the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold in the way of most of the remaining Democratic agenda.

That can only happen if Democrats are unified. And while most are onboard, there’s one familiar exception: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).

Manchin is the only Democrat not to cosponsor the legislation. In a recent op-ed, Manchin said he wouldn’t vote for S.1 on the basis that he cannot support an election bill without GOP buy-in.

Senate Democrats are desperate to draw up a bill that could get Manchin’s support and are talking daily—“hourly,” said one member—about how to make it happen. But Manchin’s logic sets up a nearly unsolvable paradox for his colleagues: if his support remains conditional on Republicans seeing the light, there’s likely no change that will be sufficient for Republicans.

The GOP has fully dug in against S.1, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) describing the bill as a Democratic “power grab” and an attempt to “rewrite the ground rules of American politics for partisan benefit.”

What’s more, it’s unclear how fully Manchin has expressed any substantive concerns he has with the bill to his colleagues and to others who are engaged in the process, according to more than a half-dozen sources who spoke with The Daily Beast.

“We’re not going to get 50 written as-is, we’re having to shave and massage it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “Joe has a set of concerns that he wants us to address, and we’re going to address them.”

But other senators seemed less clear on that score—and more frustrated. “The members of the caucus who have objections to the bill need to specify what their objections are,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), who did not mention Manchin by name. “I would suggest that members who have that concern, if they otherwise agree with the policy, can’t specify policy objections, should try to rally that bipartisan support that they need to see to make the case across the Senate for the legislation.” Manchin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the second-ranking Democrat, told reporters last week that Manchin was expected to send a list of specifics. But Manchin did not attend a recent caucus lunch devoted to discussing how to move S.1 forward, citing a scheduling conflict.

While the West Virginia centrist is getting worked, supporters of S.1 are grappling with another concern—the possibility that there are more who want to see significant changes to the bill.

In recent weeks, outlets like Politico have reported that unnamed Democratic senators have unspecified objections to the bill. This dynamic, on top of the uncertainty around Manchin’s position, has pushed some Democrats past the brink of exasperation.

“It's public office, not private office,” said an animated Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “If someone has a problem with a bill, they should say something.”

Schatz said he’d had three or four group conversations about the bill, and he hadn’t heard any specific issues. “If someone has a concern, they’re keeping it secret from all the other members of their caucus, and leaking it to The Hill doesn’t count,” he said.

Still, Democrats who work on campaigns have long been uneasy with the bill’s provisions on campaign finance and dark money disclosure. And many want to see legislation more tailored to the party’s top goal right now: ensuring access to the ballot in 2022 after a slew of Republican-backed bills to rework elections are moving in dozens of states in response to the GOP’s losses in the 2020 election.

That backdrop is animating many Democrats’ belief that the next two months are an inflection point for their agenda in 2021 and beyond. Many feel that time is running out to pass federal election standards before the 2022 election cycle kicks in, and a number of pieces need to fall into place for that to happen. The biggest one, of course, is still a long way off: ending the filibuster.

But those discussions won’t really start until the concerns of Manchin, or others, on S.1 are addressed. If they can be addressed at all.

“You don’t want to have a situation like you get with the Republican Party, when every single member is all-in to repeal the Affordable Care Act and when it comes time to having power, they can’t get the votes,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the liberal advocacy group Indivisible, which has organized in favor of S.1. “We have to show we’re a responsible governing party.”

Democrats’ proposal to reshape the political system was born after they took over the House in 2019. They quickly put together a sweeping bill with new federal standards and rules that touch nearly every aspect of the campaigning and election administration process, from requiring states to implement automatic voter registration and nonpartisan redistricting commissions to creating strict disclosure requirements for “dark money” groups that spend heavily on election communications.

That bill was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate. But after Democrats recaptured the chamber and the White House in 2020, the bill’s proponents quickly reintroduced it in more or less its same form. By March, House Democrats had passed it a second time.

Senate Democrats moved to make changes that many hoped would assuage concerns from local election officials and election experts that the bill, as written, would be an enormous headache to implement. An amendment crafted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) tweaked the time frame for states to implement S.1’s standards on voter registration and election administration. It also proposed giving states waivers for some of the toughest provisions. She has said the changes were explicitly responsive to concerns expressed by West Virginia’s secretary of state.

Beyond that, Democratic senators have been reluctant to specify parts of the enormous legislation that they’d be comfortable axing or changing. “Each of these pieces is critical, each strengthens the other,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told The Daily Beast. “There’s a reason they are packaged together, and if there are parts that are acceptable after that, after that first vote fails, we should consider what could be done.”

One idea, less-formed at the moment, is to strip out S.1’s proposals on ethics rules and gerrymandering and put together a smaller bill aimed squarely at countering the state-level push to implement more favorable election rules for the GOP. Many Democrats look at bills like the one making its way through Texas’ legislature—which would put new restrictions on early voting hours and vote by mail eligibility—and see the wisdom in a more targeted approach.

“There’s not a single thing in that bill that I disagree with,” Schatz said, nodding to the dynamic. “But I don’t object to making it more narrowly tailored to voting rights and protecting the sanctity of votes.”

That sentiment has been boosted by a glimmer of bipartisanship on at least one voting proposal: legislation to strengthen the federal Voting Rights Act after key provisions were weakened by the Supreme Court. Both Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) lent their support to that bill, named for the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.

Another idea, which is more divisive among Senate Democrats, is to break up the bill and put its various components to separate votes on the floor.

“You know, you can get to a touchdown by a bunch of first downs,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM). “There’s a lot of very popular stuff in there that, if at the end of the day we don't have 50, we should still put those things on the floor.”

To date, Schumer has been reluctant to close off any possibilities. “We’re open to changes and modifications as long as it does the job,” he said last week.

But plenty of progressives already feel they have made more than enough concessions and don’t want to see any more.

“Those who want to make this just about protecting the freedom to vote would potentially jettison some of the most popular parts of the bill,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee advocacy group. “It’d become ironic that in the name of getting the bill across the finish line, we made it less popular.”

Greenberg, of Indivisible, said S.1 shouldn’t be changed more than it has. “We should not be splitting S.1 up,” she said. “We should not be revising the bill or negotiating with ourselves.”

Advocates insist that these concerns are mostly superficial and that very few senators are not on board with the entire legislation as written.

“Do members have some private concerns and not want to give voice to it?” asked Michael Sozan, the point person for S.1 at the liberal Center for American Progress think tank. “Maybe. But the caucus is pretty unified around this bill as a whole. This bill is actually in really good shape.”

Still, S.1 is slated for a Senate vote in the final week of June. Before, during, and after, Democrats will be pressing Manchin—or any other colleague with reservations—about “what it’d take to get to yes,” as Schatz put it.

It will not be easy. And if Democrats climb that mountain, they’ll be staring at an even taller one: how to translate party unity on S.1 into it becoming law.

“I’m not giving up on it,” said Kaine. “We’re going to get 50 on a voting rights bill.”

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