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How Democrats can get a voting rights bill through the Senate

There are a few months, tops, for the Senate to actually pass a voting rights bill.
Photo illustration: A clock on the U.S. Capitol dome, surrounded by pieces that show John Lewis, voters in a line, text that reads,\"HR1 for the people act\", and a hand holding a ballot.
Time is of the essence to undo the GOP's attack on voting rights.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Senate Democrats have their marching orders: The caucus leadership has vowed to pass a national voting rights bill that will curb changes Republicans have made in the states that will make it harder to vote for too many Americans. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a problem. Nobody knows how to make this happen.

If the For the People Act can’t pass, then the John Lewis Voting Rights Act must.

Politicians and pundits have a bad habit of using whatever national election is up next as a way to think about whatever random issue is under discussion. Swapping in horse race politics for how policies actually affect real people is a trap that I prefer to avoid. But in this case, the two are inextricably intertwined. How quickly the Democrats actually manage to get a bill to Biden’s desk will determine whether their brittle majority gets shattered irreparably in the face of GOP efforts to further manipulate the system in their favor.

It’s been almost nine weeks since the House passed the For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1, the massive election reform bill, and passed it over to the Senate for action. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said that he hopes to get his chamber’s equivalent bill, S. 1, on the Senate floor by August. That, in theory, will give the states enough time to implement its provisions before the midterms. That timing would also head off the redistricting efforts that will be in high gear starting later this year as states use the 2020 Census data to draw up new election maps.

What has me confused is why Schumer isn’t already lining up vote after vote on the House-passed version of this bill now. The best argument against this is that he doesn’t have the full backing of his caucus yet; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the only Democrat who isn’t a co-sponsor of the For the People Act, isn’t a fan of the bill’s omnibus approach (or, I’d bet, the lack of political cover that would come with Republicans signing on in support like he wants.)

But the first step for getting the For the People Act through the Senate would be passing a motion to proceed, which puts a bill on the floor to debate. Simple enough, until you remember that the motion can be filibustered, raising the threshold to 60 votes under current rules.

The point of these bills and the messaging around them is to actually cause less trust in the electoral system among Republican voters.

In this case, that could work to Schumer’s advantage. Talking Manchin into voting to proceed will be easier than convincing him to vote for the full bill as it stands, knowing as he does that it won’t work without 10 Republicans in support. That leaves a united Democratic caucus seemingly ready to start debating the House-passed version of the bill, in the face of unified Republican opposition.

Next, rinse and repeat two or three times over coming months to make clear that the GOP really doesn’t want to talk about voting rights, apparently. While this is happening, Democrats should continue to mark up the Senate’s version of the bill as they’re preparing to do in the Senate Rules Committee later this month. There are definitely things that need to be addressed in the House-passed version, as election experts have noted, including deadlines that state and local election administrators are unsure they can meet even if the funding they need materializes.

That gets us to the summer, where we will be able to see the payoff for forcing Republicans to filibuster the earlier, unamended version of H.R. 1. At this point, Schumer will have hopefully gotten his chamber in order and on the same page — in some alternate universe, he will even have one or two Republicans who support the bill.

Barring that, it will be another day, another filibuster. And another. Schumer should have at least five cloture votes for S. 1 to proceed to the floor lined up in a row if possible — one per day — to show just how little the GOP wants to debate the bill.

(Could Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., find 10 sacrificial lambs to vote for the motion to proceed, just to deny the Democrats a talking point while still being unable to pass the bill? It’s possible. But I also doubt that many of his members want to leave themselves open to an attack on that vote from a primary challenger.)

Schumer should have at least five cloture votes for S. 1 to proceed to the floor lined up in a row if possible — one per day — to show just how little the GOP wants to debate the bill.

But that probable GOP blockade shouldn’t be the death knell for voting rights reform. H.R. 1 isn’t actually the only voting rights bill in town, even if it is the most comprehensive. The House last year passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which revives the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court trashed it seven years ago. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been trying to remind the Senate that the bill exists — and may actually stand a better chance at passing than H.R. 1.

This brings us back to timing: H.R. 1 has already passed the House, while Politico reports that changes still being made to the narrower version named after Lewis “could push a vote back to late summer or early fall at the earliest, according to multiple lawmakers and aides. Some in the caucus are discussing a possible vote next year.”

That would be too late to give the Department of Justice enough time to do everything it would need to require pre-approval of these new electoral maps. That includes having to: write a new list of states and locales that have violated voting rights access; determine which states have new laws that would now need federal sign-off; and allow for those states to appeal the DOJ’s decisions.

It would also be too late to make this particular gamble I have in mind work. Because if Republicans refuse to allow debate on H.R. 1, the Senate needs a backup in the form of the Lewis bill. If even that bill can’t make it to the floor — one that Manchin actually thinks Democrats should be focusing on, per Politico; one that updates and enhances one of the landmark pieces of civil rights legislation in this country — well, then Schumer and Manchin are at a point where they need to have some words. Words including “filibuster” and “abolish” and “place in history” to be specific.

Despite what some Democrats seem to believe, there’s nothing to be gained from simply having “messaging” votes on these bills if they don’t actually pass. The components of the For the People Act are already popular, there’s no need to force votes to get them into headlines.

Moreover, it doesn’t make sense to rack up talking points ahead of an election that you can no longer structurally win thanks to limits on access to the polls. And while there may be some temptation to let the GOP shoot itself in the foot here — the Washington Post on Monday reported that Florida Republicans are now worried they may have cut off access to mail-in ballots that they count on in elections — the future of American democracy can’t be left to a prayer that the other side whiffs at suppressing votes.

It’s clear that state-level Republicans feel like they’ve found a winning issue. As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent assessed correctly, the point of these bills and the messaging around them is to actually cause less trust in the electoral system among Republican voters, which in turn allows for even more voter suppression. Congress holds the key to stopping them. If the For the People Act can’t pass, then the John Lewis Voting Rights Act must. If Democrats won’t pass that, then I don’t know how we’ll ever set things right.