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Chuck Schumer's filibuster dodge for voting rights just may work

The Democrats' plan gets past one of two likely GOP filibusters without changing the rules.

Senate Republicans have spent months blocking a pair of voting rights bills from even getting a debate. Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has found a way around them — and the method is, quite frankly, beautifully clever.

Last year, GOP senators filibustered starting debate on both the Freedom to Vote Act, which would set new standards for federal elections, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. However, in a Wednesday memo to Democrats, Schumer promised to employ a process called “messages between the houses” to get both bills onto the Senate floor.

If you’re asking yourself, “What are ‘messages between the houses?’” you aren’t alone. Rules wonk that I am, I’d never heard of this process. But here’s the short version: Before a bill can become a law, the House and Senate both have to agree on the wording of that bill. Most of us are familiar with the two chambers putting together a conference committee to hammer out the differences in language — though these have been rare in recent years, as more and more obstruction has become the norm.

An alternate method uses “messages between the houses” to pass amendments to bills back and forth. “Each house has one opportunity to amend the amendments from the other house, so there can be Senate amendments to House amendments to Senate amendments to a House bill,” the Congressional Research Service explained. What’s important for this current situation, though, is that amendments from the House are considered “privileged,” which means they can be put before the Senate without debate. That, in turn, means there’s no opportunity for Republicans to filibuster bringing the amended bill to the floor.

This leads us to the play from Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The two Democratic leaders have picked a bill that has already been passed back and forth several times: one on NASA. The House will pass “an amendment in the nature of a substitute,” essentially deleting the entirety of the original text and replacing it with the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. (The House Rules Committee met on Wednesday night to get that process started.)

When that bill reaches the Senate, boom: Schumer brings the new joint bill up for consideration on the floor. That’s a definite improvement over the last few times Democrats have tried to get the ball rolling on these debates, where the GOP has shut down debate before it even began.

That takes care of step one. Where things are still up in the air is what comes next: actually passing the bills. Because the process to sign off on the House’s “amendment” is still subject to cloture, the process for ending debate in the Senate. Anything that needs cloture can be filibustered, requiring 60 senators to clear the way for a final vote on the bill.

Where things are still up in the air is what comes next: actually passing the bills.

When, as expected, the GOP filibusters, Schumer has said he’s ready to try to change the Senate’s rules to carve out an exception to the filibuster on voting rights bills. It’s the kind of reform that President Joe Biden, himself a former senator, endorsed at a speech in Georgia on Tuesday. And many of the more wary moderates in the caucus, including Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, have come out in favor of such an exemption.

Schumer still has two holdouts in the caucus who are against any changes to the filibuster rule at all: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both have in the last few days emphasized their unwillingness to budge on that front and their commitment to sticking with the 60-vote threshold. They’ve been having conversations with other senators on that front, and Biden will attend the Senate Democrats’ weekly lunch on Thursday to try to seal the deal. But Schumer will call the vote by Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — at the latest. If the GOP’s filibuster holds, it will only be thanks to Manchin's and Sinema's stubbornness.

For all the high drama, the stakes are very real here: The state-level assault on voting rights from Republicans is real and will have implications for our democracy for decades to come. These bills are the best way to level the playing field for everyone moving forward. Failure to act because two people want to defend a rule that is undemocratic, is against the founders’ wishes and was developed to defend racism is simply unacceptable.

That said, the next few days are going to be intense. The Senate’s rules are weird, obscure, arcane and, more often than not, designed to slow down bills from passing. Every once in a while, though, I have to marvel at the creative ways they can be deployed to actually get something done.