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Why Democrats are voting on bills that have no chance of passing

A series of upcoming votes could build the case for eliminating the filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks at a press conference on June 8 in Washington, DC. 
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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 Democrats — many of whom support a change to the filibuster — are building the case for getting rid of the rule, in an effort to change the minds of their colleagues who want to keep it.

A vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act this week marked the latest development in this process, which will soon include votes on a series of other Democratic priorities that will likely fail. These votes are intended to demonstrate Democrats’ commitment to issues like voting rights protections and gun control, while underscoring how willing Republicans are to obstruct these policies.

As bill after bill gets blocked by Republican filibusters, Democrats who want to eliminate the rule hope to bolster their argument for a change they could make unilaterally, given the party’s narrow majority in the Senate.

Currently, if legislation is filibustered, or blocked, it needs 60 votes to pass. And virtually all legislation can be subject to a filibuster, so the 50-person Democratic caucus is in perpetual need of 10 Republicans willing to get onboard to approve everything from police reform to immigration reform. Should it be disposed of, Democrats would need only the 50 votes of their caucus, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris to pass bills.

Moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) remain firmly opposed to rules changes, putting them out of reach. The exercise of voting on Democratic priorities that are highly unlikely to succeed is meant to show the moderates just how opposed Republicans are to supporting key bills, and is intended to sway them into changing their thinking.

“Each vote will be building the case to convict the Republican Senate leadership of engaging in political gridlock for their advantage, rather than voting for the agenda the American people voted for in 2020,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) told the New York Times.

Democrats deployed this strategy on Tuesday, when the 50 Senate Republicans voted unanimously to block the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation intended to combat the gender pay gap, which did not advance in 49-50 vote. It’s the second measure that’s failed due to a Republican filibuster this year, after the GOP previously stymied legislation that would establish an independent commission to investigate the deadly insurrection of January 6.

The failure of the Paycheck Fairness Act was a reminder that Republican obstruction of Democratic bills extends even to fairly popular legislation. The gender parity policies in the bill have support; a majority of voters in a 2019 Politico/Morning Consult poll said they believed the federal government was not doing enough to close the wage gap. Republicans previously filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act during the Obama administration, too, and were willing to block the broadly supported January 6 commission as well.

“Americans expect their government to make progress to improve our country, but Senate Republicans once again seem to be choosing obstruction,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a floor speech this week.

This vote series is intended to underscore Republican obstruction

The Paycheck Fairness Act is only one vote of many that could illustrate the extent of Republican obstruction. It’s a bill that House Democrats have now passed four times, and one that aims to help close the gender pay gap in several ways:

  • Preventing companies from asking new hires for salary data from prior jobs to set wages
  • Requiring companies to prove a pay gap was not due to gender
  • Barring companies from retaliating against employees for disclosing their wages with one another
  • Requiring companies to report wage gaps to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The gender pay gap remains substantial, and has an outsized effect on women of color, as USA Today’s Ledyard King reports:

Women who work full time, year-round are paid, on average, 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. This wage gap is more pronounced for women of color: Black women typically make only 63 cents, Native American women only 60 cents, and Latinas only 55 cents, for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts.

“This vote comes at a time when women, particularly women of color, are reeling from the horrible economic impacts of the pandemic,” said Amanda Brown Lierman, the executive director of the advocacy group Supermajority, in a statement. “This is why we support eliminating the filibuster — because it’s too often a tactic to block racial justice and equity.”

Republicans have countered, however, that this legislation would put too much legal liability on companies and repeatedly opposed the bill as a result.

More tough votes are coming. Later this month, the Senate is set to vote on the For the People Act, Democrats’ sweeping voting rights bill, which Manchin has opposed. And Schumer has also said that gun control legislation and the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, could soon be on the docket as well.

While all these votes are expected to fail, holding them is meant to show Democratic commitment to pushing for these policy areas, and how existing rules make it near impossible to get any of them done.

“This is going to be totally different than when McConnell was majority leader,” Schumer previously told Vox of this legislative session. “He had the legislative graveyard. He never had debate; he never let these bills come to light.”

Whether the outcome of such efforts will be any different from McConnell’s is still an open question. Even successful bills that have had significant GOP input like the Endless Frontiers Act have been met with delays and pushback, and if relatively uncontroversial proposals like making sure everyone is paid equally can’t pass, there seems to be little hope for more polarizing issues like guns control.

Coming votes could well reveal that Democrats may face a “legislative graveyard” of their own if they don’t take action to change the filibuster.

There still isn’t unity among Democrats on the filibuster

Senate Democrats are still fractured as ever on eliminating the filibuster, with Manchin and Sinema among those who are the most vocal opponents of such a move. “I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster,” Manchin recently reiterated in a Charleston Gazette op-ed.

Other senators in the Democratic caucus have recently signaled that they have reservations about getting rid of the filibuster as well, although some, including Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Angus King (I-ME), have indicated a willingness to consider it if necessary.

It’s unclear just how much these votes could potentially sway them — if at all. For months Manchin and Sinema have emphasized that they’re focused on preserving the filibuster so the minority still has a voice in the Senate. What repeated failed votes could do is establish a record Democrats can point to if they ultimately pursue rules changes.

It’s an effort that echoes how Democrats built up to reforms to the nominees filibuster in 2013, when Republicans slow-walked appointees put forth by President Barack Obama. That year, Democrats voted to do away with the filibuster on most presidential nominees after Obama’s defense secretary pick, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pick, and Circuit Court judge picks ran into Republican obstruction.

Democrats would have to build the same case to convince wary moderates how much a rules change is really needed, though their narrow majority this term offers no room for any members to defect like some did in 2013. Back then, Manchin was one of three Democrats who voted against the rules change.

He seems intent on maintaining the same position — meaning the filibuster is likely here to stay, for now.

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