clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The prospects for Democrats’ major voting rights bill look grim in the Senate

The filibuster is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Congressional Democrats have declared the For the People Act their must-pass voting rights bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying that “failure is not an option.”

But what if the must-pass bill can’t pass?

That’s the dilemma party leaders may be forced to confront soon, as they try to move the bill, which passed the House in March, through the Senate. The upper chamber’s Democrats plan to meet to discuss strategy around the bill on Thursday.

The nearly 800-page bill (often referred to by “HR 1” or “S 1,” its numbering in each chamber) would overhaul elections policy in the United States, setting national standards aimed at making it easier for more people to vote, outlawing partisan gerrymandering, and supercharging the power of small donations to federal candidates, among many other provisions.

With the Republican Party becoming increasingly hostile to the idea of respecting election results (as seen in the purge of Rep. Liz Cheney from the House GOP’s leadership), Democrats argue something must be done to protect American democracy. Specifically, the For the People Act would counteract many voting restrictions passed by Republicans on the state level, and try to preempt a new round of partisan gerrymandering in GOP-controlled states.

The bill has many provisions that poll well, but it faces formidable obstacles to passage through the Senate — from the filibuster to critiques from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to quieter misgivings from other Democrats. It doesn’t currently seem that Democrats have a plausible strategy for overcoming those obstacles.

Schumer has indicated that his first step will be to try to unite all 50 Senate Democrats around the bill, rather than rushing toward consideration of a rules change aimed at getting it past the filibuster. That would entail winning over Manchin. But even if he achieves that, he’d also have to get Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and other moderates on board with changing the Senate’s rules. It won’t be easy.

Four obstacles to the For the People Act’s chances of passing

The For the People Act’s first problem is, of course, the legislative filibuster. Under current Senate rules, this bill would take 60 votes to advance past a certain GOP filibuster. Democrats have only 50 Senate seats, so they’d need to win over 10 Republicans. That isn’t happening — congressional Republicans have uniformly opposed the bill, believing it would hurt their party’s chances at winning elections. So for it to pass in anything like its current form, a change to Senate rules would be necessary. Democrats theoretically could ram through a rules change with their votes alone, either to abolish the filibuster entirely or to create a special new exemption to it for voting rights bills.

The second problem, then, is that moderate Democrats simply don’t want to change the Senate’s rules to weaken the filibuster. Sens. Manchin and Sinema have been the most outspoken opponents of a rules change — Manchin told me last month that “if we get rid of the filibuster, we would lose the purpose of this democracy.” An unknown number of other moderate Democrats sympathize with this view. So they don’t have the votes for a rules change right now.

The third problem is that, even if Democrats lined up the votes to abolish the filibuster somehow, Manchin has said he’s inclined to oppose any party-line effort to overhaul voting in the country. “How in the world could you, with the tension we have right now, allow a voting bill to restructure the voting of America on a partisan line?” he asked, arguing that such a move would fuel more “anarchy” of the kind that occurred at the Capitol on January 6. If Manchin holds firm on this, the For the People Act is essentially dead.

Then there’s a fourth problem — that other congressional Democrats quietly have misgivings about aspects of the For the People Act, as I wrote in April. The party has near-unanimity around the bill in public, with all but one House Democrat voting for it, and every Senate Democrat except Manchin co-sponsors it. But some members of the Congressional Black Caucus aren’t thrilled about it (fearing its redistricting reforms would dilute predominantly Black districts), and moderate senators have doubts as well.

So there’s really only one even remotely plausible way the For the People Act can become law: All 50 Democratic senators, including Manchin, have to be united in support of not only the bill itself (meaning either the bill has to change or the holdouts have to cave) but also of a Senate rules change that would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority and escape a filibuster.

Activists say they’ll fight to try to make sure that happens, with Ezra Levin of the progressive group Indivisible telling NBC News, “We are at an inflection point in American history. Down one path is a Trump-inspired white plutocracy, and down the other is a representative democracy.” But it’s unclear whether these activists have any leverage in dealing with Manchin, who is the last Democrat standing in a state that Trump won by a margin of nearly 39 points in 2020.

Progressives hope someone — whether that’s Schumer, President Joe Biden, or someone else — can figure out how to make Manchin move. In the end, though, the decision will be up to him. And when I asked him about the filibuster, he said his recent op-ed declaring there is “no circumstance” in which he will vote to weaken or eliminate it means what it says. “If you want to argue about it for two years,” he told me, “then you’re going to waste a lot of your energy and your time.”

If he holds firm, that puts Democratic leaders in quite an awkward position. They’ve insisted to their base that passing this bill is essential to preserve American democracy — yet they may not be able to actually do it.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.