Republicans used the filibuster to block debate on the sweeping voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics reform bill that congressional Democrats introduced as their top priority after winning control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. This was predictable. What comes next isn’t.
The only way forward for the For The People Act is for Senate Democrats to change the chamber’s filibuster rules.
Almost all Democrats have stated an openness to some kind of change to the filibuster rules, but all 50 of them must agree and more than one do not.
Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) are vocally opposed to weakening or eliminating the filibuster. There are also reportedly a handful of other Democrats leery of changing the filibuster rules, but unwilling to say so in public. For the bill to have any hope of passing, their filibuster positions will need to either change or be rationalized to accept rules changes.
The current rules require the votes of 60 senators to both begin and end debate on most legislation. Nearly every bill is now subject to this 60-vote threshold in order to pass, which was never the intent of either the creators of the Senate or those who invented the filibuster and adjusted its rules over the years.
Democrats who support changing the filibuster rules used the GOP blockade of the voting rights bill as a jumping-off point for their renewed advocacy.
“What could be more hypocritical and cynical than invoking minority rights in the Senate as a pretext for preventing debate about how to preserve minority rights in the society?” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said in a Senate floor speech ahead of the cloture vote.
Advocacy groups that support the For The People Act are also increasing pressure on all senators to back any change to the filibuster that would allow the bill to pass before the August break.
The filibuster of the bill marked “a critical new phase in this fight,” Eli Zupnick, spokesman for the Fix Our Senate anti-filibuster coalition, said.
Groups backing the For The People Act will be, “putting millions of dollars on television and digital,” to mobilize grassroots support for changing the filibuster rules, Zupnick added.
Twenty Arizona-based groups are teaming up with Just Democracy, a pro-voting rights coalition of Black and Latino advocacy groups, for a $1.5 million advertising campaign in Arizona targeting Sens. Sinema and Mark Kelly (D).
The Declaration for American Democracy, the largest pro-For The People Act coalition, is also launching a nationwide campaign with events to bring grassroots pressure on the filibuster called Deadline for Democracy. This mobilization is pushing for the Senate to change the filibuster rules and pass the bill before the August recess. This deadline would allow reforms in the bill, such as changes to congressional redistricting, to be implemented ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“This next 10 days or so is going to be really about putting pressure on the Senate to revisit this bill and bring it back up for a vote,” Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible, a nationwide grassroots progressive group, said.
The Poor People’s Campaign, a civil rights group led by Rev. William Barber, will lead a march on the offices of Manchin and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday to push for the bill’s final passage.
Republican-allied groups that oppose Democrats changing the filibuster rules to pass their agenda are also increasing pressure on vulnerable incumbent Democrats up for election in 2022.
One Nation, the dark money group run by former McConnell aides, began a $1 million advertising campaign calling on Kelly to oppose filibuster rules changes. The ad uses Sinema’s opposition to changing filibuster rules against him. (The For The People Act would require groups like One Nation to disclose their big money donors.)
While these advocacy campaigns ramp up, the real pressure on filibuster reform holdouts will come from their colleagues in Congress ― and possibly from President Joe Biden’s White House. This effort will have to find changes to the rules that holdouts could find agreeable.
Between Manchin and Sinema, only Manchin, despite his current insistence on opposing limiting the filibuster, has a record of supporting changes to filibuster rules.
In 2011, Manchin co-sponsored and voted for Senate rule changes that would have mandated a talking filibuster and eliminated the filibuster on motions to proceed to debate on the bill. It is notable that the Republican filibuster of the For The People Act on Tuesday was on the motion to proceed to debate.
More recently, Manchin stated support in March for bringing back a talking filibuster, whereby those blocking debate would be required to hold the Senate floor and speak until one side pulled the bill or the other stopped speaking. That was before he flip-flopped to opposing filibuster rule changes.
And while Sinema has not proposed, co-sponsored or voted for any prior filibuster rules changes, she did invite debate on the legislative filibuster in a Washington Post op-ed where she reiterated her opposition to changing the rules.
“It is time for the Senate to debate the legislative filibuster, so senators and our constituents can hear and fully consider the concerns and consequences,” Sinema wrote on Monda. “Hopefully, senators can then focus on crafting policies through open legislative processes and amendments, finding compromises that earn broad support.”
Other proposals to change the filibuster rules circulating among Democrats include requiring the filibustering minority to hold at least 40 senators on the floor continuously while blocking a bill or creating a filibuster carve-out for legislation that expands the right to vote. The latter proposal was first proposed in a 2018 op-ed in Slate by University of California, Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen.
“This progressive version of electoral hardball — which would merely mean killing the filibuster for voting rights legislation — is an appropriate response to the hardball tactics Republicans have used to manipulate the U.S. political system in recent years,” Hasen wrote.
There are already a number of exemptions to the filibuster carved out for specific categories of legislation or action. Bills related to the budget can go through the reconciliation process, which requires just 50 votes. The same is true for bills to override certain executive branch regulations. And executive branch and judicial nominations are also subject to a simple 50-vote majority.
Warnock has openly advocated for such an exemption to the filibuster rules for voting rights.
Senate Democratic leaders announced during and after floor debate on the motion to proceed to debate on the For The People Act that action to pass the bill would not end with the GOP filibuster.
“I would love to get some support from the other side of the aisle, but, frankly, I don’t expect we’re going to get it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a lead sponsor of the bill, said.
She announced that the Senate Rules Committee she chairs would hold a series of hearings to further raise attention to the bill, including a field hearing in Georgia focused on the voter suppression law recently enacted by the state’s Republican-majority state legislature.
“This is not the end of the line,” she added. “This is only the beginning.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) similarly noted that the GOP filibuster of the bill would not halt Democrats’ pursuit of voting rights legislation.
“In the fight to protect voting rights this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line,” Schumer said.
“Democrats will never let this voter suppression be swept under the rug,” he said, adding, “We are going to explore every last one of our options.”
The For The People Act was always headed toward this conflict with the Senate’s filibuster rules. This long-expected fight will now finally play out.