Senate Democrats, frustrated with a lack of progress on President Biden’s mammoth social welfare and climate bill, are talking about blowing up the filibuster rules again to force through a partisan overhaul of the country’s election laws.
Democrats want to close out their first year in the Senate majority with at least another major domestic policy win for the White House. Their best bet for reaching that goal is by mobilizing momentum for an overhaul of the nation’s voting laws, especially as Mr. Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act has in recent days.
“I think there’s a universal view in our caucus that we need to get something done,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “There’s a strong belief in the Senate that we can restore the Senate and at the same time deal with voting rights, and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”
Mr. Schumer and other Democratic leaders say the recent success in creating a one-time fast track process for raising the debt limit by a simple majority has created an opportunity. They say that measure, which passed only because of the support of 10 Republican senators, has opened the door for a broader effort to suspend the filibuster one time to pass voting rights legislation.
“We in this chamber made a change in the Senate’s rules in order to push forward something that all of us think is important,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia Democrat. “We set the stage to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, and yet as we cast that vote … this same chamber is allowing the ceiling of our democracy to crash in around us.”
Mr. Warnock and a cadre of Democratic senators are working to craft a plan to change the Senate’s long-standing filibuster rules, which require at least 60 votes to end debate on the legislation, to pass the election legislation.
The key to unlocking the rules change is Sen. Joe Manchin III, a moderate West Virginia Democrat. Mr. Manchin’s support, alongside every other Democratic senator, would allow the majority to push through the change immediately with the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“We could not imagine – we could not imagine changing the rules. That is, until last week. Because last week we did exactly that,” said Mr. Warnock. “Be very clear: Last week we changed the rules of the Senate.”
It is unclear exactly what the rule change would look like. Some lawmakers, like Mr. Warnock, are pushing for a simple one-time filibuster carve-out to pass voting rights.
Others want a more radical change to the Senate institution.
Along those lines, there is talk of changing the filibuster to require 41 “no” votes on ending debate rather than the 60 “yes” vote threshold.
Another possibility is to require senators to mount a “talking filibuster,” which would require lawmakers to speak continuously on the floor in objection to a bill. Senators currently are allowed to merely object to ending debate, forcing leadership to round up the votes necessary to overcome the filibuster threshold.
“I think right now what we’re talking about is restoring the talking filibuster and restoring the Senate to the good old days when one person couldn’t have veto power,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who is part of the rule change talks.
Mr. Manchin has signaled a willingness to discuss the topic. That isn’t a clear signal he will back the effort in the end, however.
“We’re talking about … everything, [including] the rules. How do we make the Senate work better?” said Mr. Manchin. “How can the Senate function the way it was designed to function?”
Complicating the talks is that Mr. Manchin is also actively pursuing discussions with Republican lawmakers on whether a bipartisan fix is possible.
“All of my discussions have been with bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats,” said Mr. Manchin. “The rules change should be done to be where we all have input in this rules change because we’re going to have to live with it.”
Republican lawmakers are staunchly opposed to blowing up the filibuster rules.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said he is involved in Republican talks with Mr. Manchin, pressing him to oppose another filibuster carve-out of any kind.
“There is no Republican interest in the idea that we do a talking filibuster. … That’s eliminating the filibuster,” he said.
Republicans also argue that voting to create the fast-track debt limit process did not weaken the filibuster but reasserted its power.
They say 60 votes were needed to create the fast-track process. Since the fast-track process is available only once, lawmakers would have to pass another bill and break another filibuster to use it again — without changing the Senate rules.
Democrats take a different view of the maneuver.
“This is an exception to the filibuster, and the Republicans have just signed on,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat. “It’s proof that it’s possible to create exceptions to the filibuster and move forward when it’s important.”
Not every single Democrat seems to agree with that argument. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Arizona Democrat, has concerns that changing the filibuster, even once for voting rights, could set a dangerous precedent.
“Sen. Sinema has asked those who want to weaken or eliminate the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, which she supports, if it would be good for our country to do so,” said John LaBombard, the senator’s communications director.
Mr. LaBombard said Ms. Sinema also believed it was “time for Senate to publicly debate its rules, including the filibuster, so senators and all Americans can hear and fully consider such ideas, concerns, and consequences.”
The pivot to voting rights and a filibuster change is being weighed as Mr. Biden’s mammoth social welfare bill has stalled.
Mr. Manchin, the chief holdout on the bill, has frustrated fellow Democrats to the point that most believe the Senate will be unable to pass the measure before departing Washington for the Christmas holiday.
“It’s not so much the calendar. If we wanted to do it, we would do it,” said Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat. “But I think there are still some issues with a person.”
Given that Democrats plan to pass the legislation through the evenly split Senate along party lines, Mr. Manchin’s vote is crucial.