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The predetermined defeat of Democrats’ big voting rights bill

So long as Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin oppose filibuster reform, Democrats have no clear path forward.

Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), right, and Joe Manchin (D-WV) arrive for a bipartisan meeting on infrastructure after original talks fell through with the White House on June 8, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Democrats’ must-pass voting rights bill is headed for an anti-climactic failure.

Senate Republicans are set to filibuster the motion to proceed to debate on the For the People Act Tuesday. The only remaining question is whether Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who opposes the current version of the bill, will join the GOP, or whether the vote will go down entirely on party lines.

The bill’s defeat was certain either way. It’s unlikely that any significant election reform could have won over the 10 Republican senators necessary to overcome a filibuster. But this bill is specifically designed to roll back practices like voting restrictions and gerrymandering — practices that both parties agree currently benefit the GOP. The For the People Act was crafted by Democratic politicians to reflect Democratic priorities (despite a late attempt by Manchin to put forward a compromise proposal).

And yet, throughout this effort, there has been debate over whether Democratic leaders truly wanted the bill to become law. Quiet disagreements about the bill’s priorities and specifics simmered within the party, as I wrote in April. Democrats support the bill’s national standards for voter accessibility, which would aim to counter voter restriction laws in various states, but other provisions like its anti-gerrymandering reforms have been more controversial.

Publicly, though, nearly every Democrat in Congress united around the message that passing the bill was essential to combat Republicans’ voter suppression efforts. That message was likely the real point: Whatever they might say publicly, Democratic leaders fully understood that this bill that had no path to becoming law under the current Senate rules. By holding a vote on it anyway, they were trying to tell activists demanding action that Democrats are on their side, and trying to tell the party’s base voters that this issue is a priority. Meanwhile, moderates unhappy with parts of the bill could be placated with the understanding that it wouldn’t become law anyway.

Progressive activists and left-leaning members of Congress have another message in mind. They hope the Republican filibuster will help them make the case that the Senate’s rules must be changed to let the chamber advance at least voting rights bills, or even all bills, with a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote supermajority that is currently required.

But Democratic leaders from President Biden on down don’t entirely seem committed to this strategy — likely because they doubt it will succeed.

The chances for election reform look slim

Democrats need all 50 of their senators to vote to change the chamber’s rules. By late January it was already clear that Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) would be the biggest obstacles to such a move, as both publicly pledged to defend the filibuster.

Little has changed since then. On Monday night, Sinema wrote an op-ed reiterating her opposition to eliminating the filibuster. Manchin has previously done the same. And a new NBC report emphasizes that additional Senate Democrats also oppose filibuster abolition, though they are quieter about it. Other reports have previously made the same point.

The most reformers can hope for at the moment is a more limited rules change. In a recorded private call obtained by the Intercept, Manchin voiced at least some openness to two ideas: lowering the 60-vote threshold to 55, or changing it so that opponents need to get together 41 votes and hold the Senate floor to block a bill (rather than supporters affirmatively needing 60 to advance it). It doesn’t seem that either rules change would help this voting bill, which is uniformly opposed by the 50 Senate Republicans.

Meanwhile, President Biden has not exactly been barnstorming the country in support of the For the People Act, as activists have noted with chagrin. This contrasts oddly with the public rhetoric from many Democrats that the bill is essential to preserving democracy. But the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Paul Kane reported that, privately, some White House officials seem not to agree with that assessment, arguing that the bill wouldn’t be as helpful as many argue because Republican state legislators would find workarounds.

Additionally, Biden has other priorities that he sees as having more plausible paths to success, such as measures that can advance through the Senate’s majority-vote budget reconciliation process, or the confirmation of nominees. While activists want him to pile on the pressure on Manchin and Sinema for voting rights, Biden also needs their votes for all his other priorities; alienating them would be untenable.

Manchin himself still holds out hope that, with more time, he could put together a bipartisan compromise on election reform. That, too, is quite unlikely. As I wrote when I profiled, the West Virginia senator has had some impressive bipartisan successes — but not on issues where views are very polarized between the parties. His gun control compromise flopped, much like efforts at bipartisan immigration reform have, and voting reform would likely end up the same way.

So, what will Democrats do about Republican voter suppression measures in the states? When it comes to Congress, the answer increasingly looks like “nothing.”

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