After an all-night vote-a-rama on the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget resolution, the Senate early this morning took a step forward on voting rights legislation, with a 50-49 party line vote that discharged the For the People Act, also known as S. 1, from the Rules Committee. The vote was designed to give Senate Republicans a chance to support the process of moving forward, or to demonstrate to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that Republicans had no such intentions.
The vote came after weeks of negotiation with Manchin over S. 1, in which he arrived at a place where he was ready to support the legislation, just as long as it wasn’t the full bill that he had already vowed to oppose. Manchin often extracts a round of concessions before offering his support to the party, and he appears to have done so again on S. 1.
“I have made it crystal clear that I do not support the For the People Act,” Manchin said on the Senate floor, referring to Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley’s flagship reforms to protect democracy. “I have worked to eliminate the far-reaching aspects of that bill and amend the legislation to make sure our elections are fair, accessible, and secure.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., nevertheless admonished the proposal as an illicit attempt to advantage Democrats in elections.
Manchin especially voiced his support for “commonsense” voter identification restrictions, which would require voters in all 50 states to show an ID — though not necessarily a photo ID — in order to vote. Democrats have long opposed voter ID rules, noting that low-income voters are less likely to have IDs and that Republicans aren’t actually interested in election integrity but rather want to disproportionately disenfranchise Democratic voters. But Senate Democrats appear ready to cave to Manchin’s demand.
Manchin also spoke out against proposals that would “politicize” the Federal Election Commission, prohibit vote-by-mail restrictions, or obstruct local election officials from maintaining voter rolls. The previous version of the For the People Act would align the FEC with other federal bodies by shifting its total number of commissioners from an even number to an odd one, eliminating the threat of a stalemate in regulatory decision-making. (Currently the FEC has six commissioners, three that side with each party. This leads to frequent gridlock and prevents the enforcement of federal election law.) Under Manchin’s proposal, the stalemate would carry on.
Mail-in voting, meanwhile, would expand participation for Americans living in underserved communities where the severe reduction of in-person sites has meant long voting lines that are especially burdensome to the elderly, handicapped individuals, and working parents. The original For the People Act banned state efforts to restrict “no excuse” absentee balloting — essentially, universally available mail-in balloting — but Manchin’s reform would still allow states to impose some restrictions, though not as many as some states currently or will soon impose.
Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged the For the People Act — or whatever Manchin wants to call it — would be amended to have the compromise text Manchin and others have negotiated. McConnell still condemned the reform agenda, especially after Senate Democrats passed their major spending bill via reconciliation.
“We’re hearing there’s going to be a substitute, but what’s technically before us is as follows: After ramming through this reckless taxing and spending spree here in the dead of night, they also want to start tearing up the ground rules of our democracy and writing new ones, of course on a purely partisan basis,” McConnell said. He later voted to bar the substitute from being debated.
The minority leader particularly criticized a new financing initiative that would allow candidates to access public funding for their campaigns. The proposal would match small contributions to congressional candidates in order to counteract the influence of the massive corporate donors who have dominated elections since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision. The public funds would primarily come from small charges on corporations convicted of criminal activities.
After Schumer secured 50 votes to discharge the bill from the Senate Rules Committee and place it on the calendar, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stonewalled three attempts to advance the legislation and two other bills even further. He objected to Schumer’s motion seeking unanimous consent to immediately consider the For the People Act, calling it a “federal government takeover of elections,” that would, ironically, “disenfranchise millions of Americans.” (Republicans argue that expanding the franchise to some people dilutes the votes of people who currently vote.)
Cruz also objected to similar motions for the Redistricting Reform Act, which would prevent partisan gerrymandering, and the DISCLOSE Act, which would force dark-money groups to reveal their donors. He instead pushed for consideration of his SuperPAC Elimination Act, which would allow unlimited individual donations to candidates in contradiction to current regulations, thereby ending the draw of the giant corporate-backed groups.
“It’s obvious to just about every American it would make a bad situation even worse,” Schumer replied.
Schumer announced voting rights would be the first matter the Senate takes up upon returning to session in September. This will mark Democrats’ second effort to pass the legislation after Republicans filibustered an earlier version in June.
Only Manchin appears willing to believe that 10 Republicans can be found to support a voting rights bill and overcome what’s known as a silent filibuster, wherein a single senator can block legislation and require 60 votes to move forward. Manchin has also been a staunch defender of the tool, refusing to consider reforms that would eliminate the option and require legislators to actually occupy the Senate floor in order to block a vote.
Once the idea that 10 Republicans might support S. 1 fails — as it is all-but guaranteed to do — Manchin will have to choose what he values more: voting rights or the silent filibuster.