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What to expect as the Senate takes up voting rights reforms

Senate Republicans are likely to derail a debate on voting rights today, but that won't mark the end of the larger fight.


For Democratic leaders, today is a day that has been circled on the calendar for weeks. Ahead of Memorial Day, for example, President Biden described democracy as the "soul of America" that all of us must fight to protect. He soon after called for June to be "a month of action on Capitol Hill," specifically on the issue of voting rights.

Around the same time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told members that they should be prepared to vote before the end of the month on a voting rights package, which he said is "essential to defending our democracy."

All of which brings us to this afternoon.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to advance the Democrats' sweeping election overhaul legislation, an attempt that is likely to be thwarted by a Republican-backed filibuster. The Democratic-controlled Senate will hold a procedural vote on an amended version of the House-passed "For The People Act," which will require at least 10 GOP senators to join all 50 Democrats to clear the needed 60-vote threshold.

I can appreciate why there's little public appetite for discussions about congressional procedures, but this afternoon's vote is not on voting rights legislation. Rather, it's a vote on moving forward with a debate on voting rights legislation. (Or, for those who care about jargon, it's a cloture vote ahead of a vote on the motion to proceed.)

For voting rights advocates, it's best to keep expectations low: the odds of at least 10 Senate Republicans voting with the Democratic majority today are effectively zero. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead Senate sponsor of the For the People Act (S.1), said this morning that proponents "may get a couple" of GOP votes. Republican leaders have insisted in recent days that the more likely outcome is zero GOP votes.

It's striking the degree to which this fight is different from the debate infrastructure. After President Biden unveiled his American Jobs Plan, Republican officials showed up at the negotiating table, in part because of their desperation to protect Trump-era tax breaks, and in part because they realized that it was within Democrats' power to pursue a bill on their own through the reconciliation process.

On voting rights, the GOP's posture is fundamentally different. Republicans are not just delighted to see their party impose sweeping voter-suppression policies in states nationwide -- for all intents and purposes, rigging democracy in the GOP's favor -- they're also cognizant of the fact that Democrats can't/won't go around them because filibuster rules won't allow it, and some centrist Dems are determined to leave the dysfunctional status quo in place.

The result is an ugly picture in which Republicans at the state level launch a coordinated assault on the franchise, while Republicans at the federal level block any and all progress on protecting voting rights -- or even having a Senate debate on the issue.

As Capitol Hill watchers know, it's not uncommon for a fight like this one to reach a legislative crescendo, at which point the relevant players move on after the vote. The victors celebrate, while those who came up short lick their wounds and eye the next debate.

In this case, however, it's probably better to see today's procedural vote as the first of several steps. As you may have noticed on last night's show, voting rights advocates don't seriously believe that a sizable group of Senate Republicans will magically see the light and decide to take a stand in support of democracy, but voting rights advocates are not prepared to pack it in, either.

Senators should expect to see renewed activism around the 4th of July and throughout the August recess (if there's an August recess). Senators should also expect to see Democratic leaders force the issue onto the floor again.

Watch this space.

Postscript: It will be a moral victory of sorts if Democrats manage to get 50 votes this afternoon, because it will at least signal partisan unity on the issue. The wildcard, of course, remains Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who last week unveiled a voting-rights blueprint intended to serve as a bipartisan compromise.

A variety of prominent Democrats -- including, as of yesterday, former President Barack Obama -- have offered support for the West Virginia's plan. Republicans, naturally, dismissed Manchin's offer out of hand shortly after its unveiling.