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Chuck Schumer is forcing Democrats to pick a side on the filibuster

It’s a big step toward actually confronting filibuster reform.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill on January 4.
Susan Walsh/AP
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is going further than he ever has on filibuster reform, forcing Democrats to take a vote on the issue later this month.

In an announcement this week, Schumer said he plans to use a vote on a major voting rights package to trigger another vote on overhauling the filibuster. Depending on the rules change Democrats consider, it’s a move that could affect both voting rights legislation and other bills, and it marks a significant step for Democrats, who have yet to consider this type of reform on the Senate floor. (Recently, Democrats approved a filibuster carveout to raise the debt ceiling, but they did so with Republican help, something they won’t have this time around.)

Both votes are likely to fail. But they send a strong message about the rapid change in the Democratic Party. Not long ago, changing the filibuster was embraced primarily by the party’s progressive wing. Now, the idea has become mainstream, and Schumer’s plan is emblematic of the shift.

“I think Schumer has always been willing to be where the caucus is,” said Tré Easton, a senior adviser for Battle Born Collective, a group dedicated to advancing progressive policies.

Democratic opposition toward the filibuster, a mechanism by which a senator can block essentially any legislation unable to receive 60 votes in its favor, has grown quickly in the last year, as Republicans have used this rule to repeatedly kill key priorities. Thus far, the Republican minority has used the filibuster to block legislation on everything from the January 6 Commission to equal pay. Some Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, have taken to calling it a “Jim Crow relic” because of how it has been used to obstruct civil rights legislation, including Democrats’ recent efforts to expand voting access.

If the filibuster were eliminated, Democrats, who currently hold a narrow Senate majority, could pass more bills. Congress would be able to “have debates and bring to a conclusion other Democratic priorities like increasing the minimum wage, passing the PRO Act, passing common sense gun safety legislation,” argues Eli Zupnick, the head of Fix Our Senate, a coalition of groups pushing for reform.

With the filibuster intact, however, Democrats are far more limited.

Because of that, Schumer has long said “everything is on the table” regarding possible changes. This is the first time, though, that he’s holding a vote on reforms, a major shift.

In a letter this week, Schumer promised that if Republicans filibuster a voting rights bill supported by the entire Senate Democratic caucus, as they are expected to, he’ll schedule a vote on changes to the rules by January 17. This move is notable, signaling that he’s willing to put members on the spot regarding their positions about the filibuster, and that he’s ready to move forward on reforms himself.

“We must ask ourselves: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” Schumer asked in a recent letter.

“This is the most aggressive statement that we’ve seen, and aggressive in a good way,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible, a progressive activist group. “To have [Schumer] come out swinging on the first Monday of 2022 was really encouraging.”

The voting rights bill Democrats hope to pass is called the Freedom to Vote Act. It was created to combat state laws attempting to suppress the right to vote, which passed in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

Though the Senate Democratic caucus is united behind the bill, because of the filibuster rules, it can’t pass without the support of at least 10 GOP senators. That support doesn’t exist. As such, many Democrats, including Schumer, now hope to change the filibuster rules so they can pass the bill with a simple majority — the 51 Senate votes Democrats possess (counting the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris) — rather than requiring the 60 votes they don’t have.

There’s a problem with this plan, however. All 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus would need to be onboard with the rules change order to make it happen, and they aren’t quite yet. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have been adamant about their reluctance to making any major changes to the filibuster, including proposals to create a carveout for voting rights legislation. Schumer is attempting to publicly pressure them to change their minds, and other members are trying to gauge if any, more limited, filibuster reforms could potentially get their support.

Amid this internal division, Republicans have begun to demonstrate growing interest in updates to an existing bill called the Electoral Count Act (ECA). The bill centers on Congress’s ability to certify elections, and lawmakers are now weighing possible changes to it that clarify the Vice President’s ability to overturn election results. Many Democrats have called the GOP’s ECA efforts a ploy aimed at deterring moderates like Manchin and Sinema from considering rules changes.

Sen. Joe Manchin gestures to reporters while boarding an elevator on Capitol Hill on December 2, 2021.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema takes a phone call outside a Senate Democrats luncheon at the Capitol on December 16, 2021.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

This month’s vote is forcing a conversation about potential options and putting pressure on Democrats to publicly reveal where they stand on the issue. Schumer’s willingness to hold a vote on the subject, alone, sends a strong message about how much many Democrats, including himself, have shifted when it comes to openly pushing for filibuster reforms.

“We must adapt. The Senate must evolve, like it has many times before,” Schumer wrote in his January letter.

Why the filibuster vote matters

Schumer’s decision to hold a filibuster vote is a reflection of increasing Democratic support for rules changes, amid frustration that Republicans have recently been able to obstruct everything from voting rights to the establishment of a committee designed to investigate the January 6 insurrection.

At this point, Republicans have now blocked Democrats’ voting rights legislation four times in the span of eight months, one of many reminders that the voting protections Democrats want don’t have the bipartisan support needed to clear a filibuster. This repeated obstruction is a major reason Democrats, including Schumer, are now considering rules reforms more aggressively.

Just last December, several moderates including Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), came out in support of changes to the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.

Sen. Bob Casey [D-PA] recently tweeted that he used to think the filibuster was this thing that protected debate and he has evolved on that,” Easton said. “That’s the story of a lot of senators in the Democratic caucus.”

This vote puts pressure on the Democratic caucus to come together on a rules change that all 50 lawmakers can get behind. At this point, lawmakers still haven’t arrived at a resolution, but discussions about which path to take, which are being led by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Angus King (I-ME), and Jon Tester (D-MT), have ramped up.

Because both Manchin and Sinema have been resistant toward a full elimination of the filibuster — or even a carveout for voting rights, which President Joe Biden has endorsed — other ideas have been suggested as well. Democrats have floated bringing back a rule requiring filibustering lawmakers to actively speak on the Senate floor, and lowering the vote threshold needed to proceed to debate on a bill from 60 votes to a simple majority.

Manchin has indicated that more limited reforms might be the most he’s willing to back at the moment. “I think the filibuster needs to stay in place, any way, shape or form that we can do it,” Manchin told reporters earlier this week. Sinema, too, has indicated that she’s reluctant to consider more sweeping options. Passage of more modest changes would still mark progress for Democrats, though they wouldn’t guarantee that bills like voting rights would actually advance.

Without Manchin and Sinema’s support, any vote on a rules change will fail. In the past, although both have been vocal about their stances, they’ve never had to take a formal vote on the issue, however. A vote will force them to make their positions clear, and could reveal if there are any other, less vocal, senators who agree with them.

“It seems to be two people that are preventing it,” Hatcher-Mays said. “On the Senate floor, they need to defend their position to the American people.”

Supporters of the Freedom Riders for Voting Rights demonstrate on the National Mall near the Capitol in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2021.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The voting rights bill would push back on restrictive, post-Trump state laws

Any vote on the filibuster would come after a vote on the Freedom to Vote Act, which Democrats would like to pass ahead of the fast approaching midterms to combat state laws attempting to suppress the right to vote.

The Freedom to Vote Act aims to address a couple of key priorities. Among other provisions, it would:

  • Set new federal standards that would protect people’s voting rights
  • Expand voting by mail and early voting
  • Standardize automatic voter registration
  • Make Election Day a legal public holiday
  • Reinstate voting rights to all those with felony convictions who’ve completed their sentences
  • Strengthen protections of election administration officials, combat gerrymandering practices, and bolster campaign finance laws

“The single most important thing is to have uniform national standards to protect the right to vote and that includes the right to vote early, the right to vote by mail, the right to not stand in a line for nine hours, and that’s exactly what the bill does,” said Daniel Weiner, co-director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Many of the provisions directly push back against state laws that have been passed in states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida, according to a report compiled by Danielle Root, Michael Sozan, and Alex Tausanovitch of the Center for American Progress. In Georgia, for example, the state legislature has passed a law that prohibits election officials from distributing mail ballots to registered voters. The Freedom to Vote Act would guarantee that officials would have the ability to do so, improving people’s access to voting during a pandemic.

The bill would tackle states’ efforts to remove or intimidate election officials. Since last year, when Trump questioned the outcome of the 2020 election, multiple states have attempted to undermine the roles of election administrators and give more power over the process to partisan state legislatures. In Georgia, multiple Black Democrats have been removed from county election boards, for example. The bill attempts to curb this behavior by empowering election officials to contest these removals in court.

Finally, the bill would push back on partisan gerrymandering and boost campaign finance protections through a variety of measures, including new mandatory criteria for redistricting and requiring greater transparency from organizations donating more than $10,000 in an election cycle. As states complete redistricting this year, many are reinforcing existing gerrymandering, or drawing new districts that are more safely partisan. These efforts often undermine the presence and power of communities of color, and attempt to undercut the population growth that has taken place in certain districts in recent years.

The legislation includes a long list of protections like this, as Vox’s Fabiola Cineas reported last fall.

Following Schumer’s pledge to hold a vote on filibuster changes, some Republicans have indicated support for updates to the Electoral Count Act instead. Republicans claim that this would fix some of the problems around elections by making it impossible for a sitting president to pressure a vice president to overrule the election results, something Trump pushed former Vice President Mike Pence to do in 2021.

But many Democrats see this an effort as an attempt to convince moderate Democrats not to back rules changes. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), for instance, has called it “a distraction.”

If Democrats want to enact their voting reforms, they’re running out of time. Democratic leaders have stressed that the legislation needs to pass soon in order to be implemented this fall. That means quickly changing Manchin and Sinema’s minds about the filibuster. Schumer’s given his party roughly two weeks to do so — and whether he and other Democrats are successful will have a major impact on what Democrats are able to accomplish in their second year in power.