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Democrats are heading toward defeat on their push to change the filibuster and pass voting rights, the latest setback for President Biden and his party's agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is pushing forward with his vow to force a vote as soon as Wednesday on a sweeping voting bill, which Republicans are expected to block. After that, Democrats are expected to force a vote on changing the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most bills to advance.
But the effort is doomed and is reopening old wounds, as progressives increasingly go public with their frustrations with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). But Democrats say they need to show that they went all-in on an issue that is important to their base heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
"There are some things that have historic value. This debate and this vote have historic value. It really gets to the heart of who we are as a nation, and I think members should be on the record," said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), asked about going forward with the vote, said that "just because you don't succeed the first time doesn't mean you're just going to throw up your hands and give up."
Schumer, speaking from the floor, acknowledged the uphill stakes, saying that Democrats "are under no illusion that we face difficult odds" but that senators, including his own members, should go on the record.
"Win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights," Schumer said from the Senate floor.
Schumer moved to tee up the showdown on Tuesday, setting up a vote to end debate on the bill that combines the Freedom to Vote Act, a sweeping bill to overhaul federal elections and campaign finance laws, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Though Republicans could drag out the vote on trying to end debate on that bill until Thursday under Senate rules, aides suggest they see little incentive to do so since the Democrats' filibuster gambit is expected to fall short and instead will let the 60-vote hurdle take place on Wednesday.
That would line up the Senate's vote on the election legislation to take place on the same day that Biden is expected to hold his first press conference of the new year. Biden acknowledged after a closed-door caucus lunch with Senate Democrats late last week that he could fall short, telling reporters that "the honest-to-God answer is, I don't know if we can get this done."
The filibuster is tied to the voting rights push because Republicans have previously used the 60-vote hurdle to block two elections bills and the Lewis voting legislation over the past year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday accused Democrats of "hysteria" for trying to change the filibuster days after they prevented Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) Nord Stream 2 sanctions bills from getting 60 votes. But Cruz cut a deal late last year with Schumer to hold a vote on his bill at a 60-vote threshold.
"[It is] a useful reminder of just how fake, fake the hysteria has been. We already knew Washington Democrats don't have any principled opposition to Senate rules," McConnell said.
After they block the latest attempt by Democrats, Schumer is expected to move forward with an attempt to change the rules to allow for a talking filibuster to move forward with the voting rights legislation. The caucus met early Tuesday evening in a special, in-person caucus meeting to discuss the potential path forward.
Under the talking filibuster, opponents could delay a bill for as long as they could hold the floor but, once that is over, senators could pass it with a simple majority.
In addition to forcing Manchin and Sinema to go on the record with their opposition to changing the rules, which will likely fuel a new round of progressive criticism, the vote will force other Democrats like Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) to take a position on changing the rules via the "nuclear" option.
The vote is likely to be used as fodder by Republicans against Kelly and other Democrats who are up for reelection in battleground states later this year that will determine which party controls the majority starting in 2023.
But Democrats view the voting rights push as critical because GOP-controlled states have enacted new voting rules in the wake of the 2020 election, which former President Trump has falsely claimed was stolen. Without changes, Democrats have warned that it will be harder for them to win in key states because of who will be impacted by the new state-level laws.
The Senate action will come days after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when several Democrats held events in their home state to commemorate the civil rights legend and call attention to voting rights.
"If you really, truly want to honor Dr. King, don't dishonor him by using a congressional custom as an excuse for protecting our democracy," Pelosi said during the event with members of King's family on Monday at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station.