Senate Dems hunt for new elections reform strategy after failed vote

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Senate Democrats are searching for an elusive plan C on elections and ethics reform after facing yet another setback Wednesday.

In a 49-51 vote, the Senate failed to move forward on Democrats' latest elections reform bill, which amounted to an intraparty compromise between Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and a group of seven Democratic senators. While Manchin spent weeks seeking GOP input, in the end no Republicans voted to begin consideration of the legislation, effectively killing the bill in the Senate.

Democrats privately hoped that if they gave Manchin the time to reach out to Republicans and he received no buy-in, he might be more open to shifting from his dug-in position against nixing the legislative filibuster or creating an exception to the rule for voting rights. But so far, there's no public evidence that the West Virginia Democrat will change his mind, and Democrats seem to have no other options.

“The next steps are unclear, but the first step was to get the Democrats unified on the voting rights bill,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii.) “We are rapidly running out of time as gerrymandering and voter suppression is happening as we speak and as we dither. Unless we restore the Senate’s ability to make laws, this situation will be dire.”

For months, Democrats have vowed that “failure is not an option” when it comes to enacting their party’s sweeping legislation. But with Senate Republicans unanimously opposed and no indication that the party has the votes to toss the legislative filibuster or change Senate rules, the prospects of Democrats enacting the bill grow slimmer by the day.

“If we can’t get Republicans to join us and we can’t convince our own colleagues to change the rules, there’s not a lot of other great options on the table,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’re going to need to keep pushing, we’re going to need to keep up the public drumbeat, we’re going to need to recruit more activists. But our procedural pathways are certainly narrow.”

The latest bill — which is significantly scaled down from an original version that Manchin did not support — creates some federally mandated voting rules, such as requiring states to offer early voting options and expand access to mail ballots. It would also ban partisan gerrymandering, require far more politically active groups to disclose their donors and include more transparency requirements for online advertising.

Democrats view the legislation as existential, and argue that it’s necessary to counter laws in GOP-led states that added voting restrictions. Republicans, however, say the legislation is nothing more than an attempt to federalize the U.S. election system.

"The fundamental problem is the Democrats think Washington ought to run elections and Republicans believe the states ought to run elections,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

"That's the gulf that separates us and I don't see us bridging that gulf.”

The Senate in June failed to start debate on a broader elections and ethics reform bill, which passed the House in March but all Republicans opposed. In addition to the defeated vote Wednesday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will hold a vote next week on a separate bill named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), which would restore a requirement that certain jurisdictions receive approval from the Justice Department or D.C. District Court before changing voting laws. That bill is also short of the 10 GOP votes needed to break a filibuster.

While Schumer vowed that "the fight to protect our democracy is far from over," he didn’t detail how Democrats would ultimately overcome opposition from Republicans. Invoking the Reconstruction era in his speech, Schumer said the majority of the Senate was still willing then to move forward on civil rights legislation, despite opposition from the minority.

"If expanding basic freedoms meant going it alone, that was something they were willing to do," Schumer said. "Today, we feel the same way."

Schumer has repeatedly said all options are on the table on voting rights, but he's never specifically endorsed a change to Senate rules.

“There are two possible next steps: one is negotiations, for the Republicans to say OK, here's what we'll go along with, here's what we need, here's what we want,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who helped negotiate the intraparty compromise. “The other is to modify the rules in such a way that we can pass the bill.”

While Democrats are pushing for swift passage, the deadline for some of the provisions in the expansive proposed legislation — notably many of the congressional redistricting provisions — may have already passed in some of the most consequential states. Passing a law with new requirements now would likely ensure intense legal battles that could tie up maps for years.

The bill contains an entire title on redistricting reform that lays out criteria for how states can go about drawing new district boundaries, including a ban on “favoring or disfavoring” a political party. The bill does allow for the new requirements to kick in for districts after enactment, “regardless of the date of enactment by the State of the congressional redistricting plan.” But some states, including Texas, have already instituted new maps, or are on the verge of doing so.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, acknowledged the window to act on gerrymandering “is getting close” to closing and “that’s why we need to act quickly.”

"We don't have unlimited amount of time to fix this,” added Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

Wednesday’s failed vote is guaranteed to renew calls from progressives to ax the legislative filibuster. Several Democrats said they expected the caucus to at some point have a discussion about rule changes, noting that the bill is a top priority for the party.

“We have to pass it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who worked on the unsuccessful intraparty compromise. “Our voters expect us to pass it. If we do not protect people’s right to vote, our voters will not just blame Republicans, they’ll say you have the majority, why didn’t you protect our right to vote?’”

And activists are increasingly agitating for Biden to do more to overhaul elections policy.

“He’s made clear that he supports voting reform, but that is simply not enough,” Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, said in an email shortly after the vote. “His inaction on voting rights will define not just his presidency but the future trajectory of this country. We need him to bring this over the finish line.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misstated the late Rep. John Lewis' party affiliation. He was a Democrat.

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