Democrats’ Top Priority Is To Reform Elections. Will It Be The Bill To Break The Filibuster?

Democrats have control of the House and Senate, and they want to use it to reform elections and make it easier to vote. But first, they’ll have to get past Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Congressional Democrats are pushing a sweeping package of voting rights, gerrymandering, election, campaign finance and ethics reforms, called the For the People Act. It’s listed as H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate, signifying that it is Democrats’ top legislative priority. For the past two decades, every bill labeled both H.R. 1 and S. 1 has become law.

If the For the People Act is to pass, though, Democrats will need to surmount the one obstacle clogging up almost all legislation that doesn’t directly affect the federal budget: the filibuster. Democrats hold only 50 votes ― plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ to break ties ― and Republicans could easily use the filibuster to prevent voting reform. McConnell, who previously called the legislation “socialism” and a “power grab,” blocked it from a Senate vote in 2019.

Debate over the filibuster ― that it is an archaic tool used mostly throughout history to block civil rights laws and is now preventing the government from operating as voters want it to ― is already at a boiling point. If the filibuster winds up killing democracy reform, it may be what finally drives Democrats to turn around and kill the filibuster. 

Former President Barack Obama, Democratic lawmakers and activists are already paving the way to make that argument. At the funeral for civil rights hero and Democratic Rep. John Lewis last summer, Obama called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic” and said that if Republicans dared to filibuster legislation to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act (a bill that is now named for Lewis), Democrats should not hesitate to eliminate the filibuster to pass the bill.

The same could be argued of the For the People Act: Lewis and his staff wrote the entire first section, which greatly expands voting rights and limits voter suppression tactics. 

These reforms are all the more vital now, Democrats argue, as Republicans seek to pass new voter restrictions at the state level, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s voter fraud lies. If Democrats don’t pull off these reforms now, they could be too late. 

They intend that the For the People Act become law. Whatever it takes. 

“It’s all systems go to try to make that happen,” said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the bill’s chief sponsor in the House.

The Fight To Fix Democracy

Democrats didn’t expect to gain unified control of Congress after the voting ended on Nov. 3. Though Joe Biden had won the White House, they were two seats short of a 50-seat majority in the Senate with two runoff races in Georgia to be decided on Jan. 5. Then they won both runoff races, putting them in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Now, they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to enact their agenda. Just as when Obama came into office in 2009, the main obstacle is McConnell’s use of the filibuster to block any and all legislation that he can.

There was intense discussion around eliminating or reforming the filibuster back then, but that nascent effort could not overcome the hesitancy from old-line Democratic senators who did not understand that the Senate they had served in for decades had changed since the 1970s era of consensus. 

A coalition did emerge around filibuster reform in 2010, which ultimately led then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to kill the filibuster for lower-court judicial nominees in order to overcome a Republican-led blockage in 2013. After Trump became president in 2017, McConnell ended the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to fill the seat he’d held open for more than a year after Justice Antonin Scalia died.

The groundwork laid down a decade ago gives today’s filibuster reform advocates a running start. The anti-filibuster coalition Fix Our Senate launched in 2019 with backing from some groups involved in the 2010 effort, including the Communications Workers of America, Common Cause and Public Citizen, as well as many new progressive and issue-oriented partners like Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress.

Fix Our Senate and the Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of good government and progressive groups whose membership overlaps with that of Fix Our Senate, are now pressuring Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other key Democrats to pass the For the People Act no matter what.

Fix Our Senate has already run a full-page ad in The New York Times calling on Schumer to end the filibuster. More ads are planned in states represented by Democratic senators who are not currently on board with ending the filibuster, like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

The Declaration for American Democracy intends to target its messaging in seven states: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. These states fall into four different but sometimes overlapping categories. There are the states with Democratic senators who are currently opposed to ending the filibuster (Arizona and West Virginia), states with potentially swayable Republican senators (Alaska and Maine), states whose election systems were attacked by Trump as part of his campaign to overturn the election (Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania), and states with moderate House Democrats who backed the For the People Act (Arizona, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania and Virginia).

The For the People Act “is shaping up to be a big flashpoint in the fight to eliminate the filibuster because it is both critically important and also absolutely clear that it will be filibustered,” said Eli Zupnick, spokesman for Fix Our Senate. He added, “If Democrats go two years without taking any steps to fix our democracy and tackle corruption and protect voting rights, this will be a failure. This will be a failure of two years.”

The fight in Congress over the For the People Act will begin in earnest in the coming weeks. The House plans to pass the legislation the week of March 1. After that, the Senate will hold hearings on the bill and likely bring it to the floor for a vote. 

And that is where the bill is expected to be blocked by a Republican filibuster and become a flashpoint in the fight to change Senate rules.

The Democrats’ Plan For Passage

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is the lead co-sponsor of the For the People Act in the Senate, alongside Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and also the leading proponent of eliminating the filibuster. He is insistent that the bill become law. To do so, it must either gain support from 10 Republican senators, an unlikely feat, or overcome the opposition to eliminating the filibuster expressed by Manchin and Sinema.

“It has to pass in some way,” Merkley said, “but it could pass in multiple ways.”

One way to try to gain Republican support, Merkley suggested, is to put the bill on the Senate floor open to all germane amendments. Most bills hit the floor with a rule drafted by the majority party limiting amendments and debate. Showing openness to the other party’s amendments and debate is rare these days and might earn buy-in from the other side.

If that doesn’t work, then Merkley thinks Democrats need to immediately examine any and all ways to change the filibuster rule. This could include lowering the threshold for overcoming the filibuster from 60 to 55 votes, eliminating the 60-vote threshold but providing for a talking filibuster, or entirely ending the filibuster.

A majority party changing the rules to pass its top-priority legislation wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, Merkley noted. In fact, Republicans altered the rules for budget reconciliation in 2015 after winning control of the Senate. This change allowed them to pass their own H.R. 1 and S. 1 in 2017, a package of tax reforms and upper-income and corporate tax cuts.

Failure to pass the For the People Act wouldn’t just mean that Democrats failed to enact the centerpiece of their agenda; it would also clear the way for a new wave of state voter suppression measures driven by Trump’s election fraud lies.

Right now, Republican-controlled state legislatures are pushing bills to limit early and absentee voting, purge voters from the rolls, and toughen voter ID requirements. The For the People Act would ban almost all of these schemes to make it harder for certain communities to vote.

“Here we are with a very, very slim majority, a majority that we’ll probably lose if voter suppression goes on steroids as seems to be the path that so many state legislatures are on right now,” Merkley said. “And so this is the critical moment to pass this bill.”

Furthermore, the bill would ban partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent, nonpartisan redistricting panels to draw House district lines. Given the extent of current Republican control of state legislatures, which exists thanks to district lines gerrymandered back in 2011, the Democratic House majority could theoretically be gerrymandered out of existence ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Passing the For the People Act quickly could potentially prevent this as well as blocking new voter suppression laws.

What remains to be seen is how many filibusters it will take to create the necessary pressure to tackle the filibuster. The For the People Act may be the first bill to be blocked in this Congress, but as long as there’s a filibuster, it won’t be the last.

House Democrats expect to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act this spring as well. If Republicans block that, too, they’ll be sending a clear symbolic message: that the GOP, fresh off trying to overturn an election by disenfranchising Black voters, is ready to stomp on Lewis’ legacy. 

Democrats will have to decide whether to let Republicans block these bills, which will allow further disenfranchisement of Black voters, or to pass the legislation they ran on.

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