A month ago, as senators prepared to depart Capitol Hill for their August break, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made a commitment on voting rights legislation. The For the People Act had come and gone, but the New York Democrat said a group of senators were negotiating the terms of a new, narrowly focused compromise measure, which the chamber would consider upon senators' return.
Evidently, those negotiations were a success. NPR reported this morning:
Senate Democrats have reached a deal on revised voting rights legislation, but a major roadblock remains in the evenly divided chamber with Republicans ready to halt the bill's progress. ... The new legislation, unveiled Tuesday morning by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and several cosponsors, builds off a framework proposed by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who had opposed an earlier, sweeping measure from his party.
The legislation, now called the Freedom to Vote Act, was crafted by a sizable group from the Senate Democratic conference, including Klobuchar, Manchin, Georgia's Raphael Warnock, Montana's Jon Tester, Virginia's Tim Kaine, Oregon's Jeff Merkley, California's Alex Padilla and Maine independent Angus King.
To be sure, the bill is not quite as ambitious as the For the People Act, but it'd be a mistake to dismiss the new intra-party compromise as a meaningless half-measure. On the contrary, the Freedom to Vote Act is a serious proposal designed to address a growing national crisis.
According to a summary made available by Klobuchar's office, the legislation is comprised of three sections. The first focuses on voter access and election administration, and it includes provisions that would create automatic voter registration at a national level, make Election Day a national holiday, and establish floors states could not fall below on early voting, same-day registration, mail voting and drop boxes.
This section also sets a national standard for voter-ID laws, intended to address Republican demands.
The second section focuses on election integrity, and it includes provisions to insulate election officials from partisan interference, establishes cybersecurity standards, and with the 2016 race in mind, "creates a reporting requirement for federal campaigns to disclose certain foreign contacts."
The final section focuses on civic participation and, among other things, it aims to end partisan gerrymandering.
At this point, many readers are probably shaking their heads. "Sure, Steve, it's a very nice bill," you're saying, "but very nice bills die all the time because they can't get the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican filibusters. Why bother taking the Freedom to Vote Act seriously?"
It's a fair question, of course, and recent history has taught us to keep expectations low. That said, this is one fight that isn't necessarily over before it starts.
As we've discussed, the fact that these senators spent a month and a half on this legislation is notable in its own right. Whether or not you always agree with the relevant players, these senators aren't dumb. They're well aware of the legislative arithmetic, and it seems unlikely that they'd invest time and energy into an important bill that was doomed from the outset.
At this point, Schumer has dispatched Manchin to reach out to Senate Republicans, hoping to secure some bipartisan backing for the compromise legislation. The odds of 10 GOP senators supporting the legislation are almost comically low, but Democrats are prepared to at least make the effort.
If — or more realistically, when — those attempts fail, attention will turn to an obvious solution: Voting rights advocates, on Capitol Hill and off, want Senate Democrats to create an exception to the institution's filibuster rules, allowing members to rescue democracy by simply passing a worthwhile bill by majority rule.
In July, Virginia's Mark Warner, a moderate Senate Democrat, publicly endorsed just such a carve-out, saying Americans' voting rights are so fundamentally important to our system of government, this is "the only area" in which he'd support an exception to the chamber's existing filibuster rules.
Will Democratic senators such as Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema agree? Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, made the case yesterday in a Washington Post opinion piece that the stakes are so high that every Democratic senator will ultimately do the responsible thing.
We'll learn soon enough whether they're right: As Rachel noted on the show last night, Schumer intends to hold a floor vote on the Freedom to Vote Act "as early as next week." Watch this space.