As senators returned to work last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to his members that went further than many expected. The New York Democrat not only called for passing voting rights legislation through majority rule, he also set a rather specific timeline.
If the Republican minority refuses to allow action on voting rights, Schumer wrote, the Senate "will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections."
That date, of course, is seven days from today — which means a whole lot is riding on what happens this week.
Let's recap with some Q&A.
What bill is on the table?
There are actually two pending pieces of legislation — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — that constitute the Democrats' voting rights agenda. Both bills appear to enjoy unanimous support among the conference's 50 members.
If the bills have majority support, what's the problem?
Given the routinization of Senate abuses, the fact that the bills have the votes to pass doesn't matter: Republican filibusters are blocking both pieces of legislation. To overcome GOP obstructionism, the bills would each need 60 votes, not 50, which is proving impossible.
So, game over?
Not yet. A great many Senate Democrats, including several former skeptics, are pushing a "nuclear option" strategy in which the governing majority creates an exception to the chamber's filibuster rules, based on the idea that voting rights are so fundamental to democracy, and the Republican campaign against the right to vote is so dangerous, that the party doesn't have a choice but to act, whether the GOP likes it or not.
How many votes would it take to execute this strategy?
And how many votes currently exist?
By most counts, 48.
Let me guess.
Right. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they support the bills, but they want to leave the filibuster rules intact, no matter what the consequences are for democracy.
Is it safe to assume there's an aggressive lobbying campaign underway to change their minds?
Is it working?
All of which brings us back to game over?
The odds of success aren't great, but no one can say with confidence what will happen over the course of this week, as negotiations reach a new, more intense level.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine has helped lead the process, along with Maine's Angus King and Montana's Jon Tester. The Virginian told MSNBC last week that he's had "really good conversations" with Manchin about filibuster changes, and added that Sinema seems more "forward-leaning" than Manchin.
King told Politico, "I can't say we have a solution or a resolution or a decision. But we're continuing to talk. That's the good news."
So there's a chance?
Maybe. The fact remains that negotiating with Manchin is challenging. Axios quoted a source close to the talks who said dealing with the conservative West Virginian is "like negotiating via Etch A Sketch," adding, "You think you're just about there. You think you've got an agreement on most of the things and it's settling in. And then you come back the next morning and you're starting from scratch."
The report went on to say, "One aide to a senator in the room described how, after meeting with the three senators, Manchin will go home and take several calls from outsiders. He'll then return with a myriad of new questions, reopening an old debate."
You haven't mentioned the White House.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both used their Jan. 6 remarks last week to drive home the point that our democracy is in danger and new protections are needed. Biden is also scheduled to deliver a speech tomorrow in Georgia specially on voting rights — and the need to "restore" the Senate's functionality.
What's your best guess as to how this will turn out when all is said and done?
It's probably best to manage expectations. If both Manchin and Sinema were to agree to the Democratic plan, it would represent a dramatic reversal, and the odds of that happening are remote.
If I had to quantify matters, I'd say there's an 85-to-90 percent chance Republican filibusters kill both bills.