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Momentum grows for Senate to take up voting bills ahead of budget package

Democrats discussing change to filibuster rules to speed action on elections overhaul

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Wednesday that voting rights legislation should be dealt with "immediately" while a larger budget package should move "as quickly as possible."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Wednesday that voting rights legislation should be dealt with "immediately" while a larger budget package should move "as quickly as possible." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats are inching closer to pushing floor action on their sweeping safety net and climate package into 2022 amid growing momentum in the caucus to make a last-ditch attempt to pass voting rights legislation before the end of the year.

In a sign of the shifting mood, one of the top progressive voices on Capitol Hill who’s been leading the charge for much of this year to get President Joe Biden’s economic agenda enacted suggested maybe it was time to change gears.

“Obviously voting rights have got to be dealt with immediately,” Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told reporters Wednesday. “I would like to see a Build Back Better bill move as quickly as possible, but if we can’t deal with that right now, it’s a lot more important that we deal with the voting rights issue.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also noted the “intensifying focus” on prioritizing voting rights legislation over the spending package. “We may not be able to do both, but certainly we should have votes and we should do at least one,” the Connecticut Democrat said.

A month ago as the House passed its $2.2 trillion version of the social safety net and climate budget reconciliation package, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer set a Christmas deadline for the Senate to follow suit.

Since then, the measure’s bogged down in the slow process of tweaking it to ensure it complies with the chamber’s “Byrd rule” that restricts what can be included in budget reconciliation bills.

It also does not yet have buy-in from 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., continues to hold out, despite personal intervention from Biden and lobbying from colleagues.

Biden, in Kentucky to view destruction from a string of tornadoes, said that if Congress could get voting legislation done, “we should do it. If we can’t, we’ve got to keep going.”

[Optimism waning in Senate about budget reconciliation vote this month]

Schumer has reiterated the Christmas goal on a near-daily basis, but he omitted it Wednesday during his daily opening remarks on the Senate floor in talking about the Senate’s remaining workload.

“This week Democrats also continue working on getting the Senate into a position where we can vote on the president’s Build Back Better legislation,” Schumer said. 

Schumer said nothing of when that work would be complete before talking about Senate Democrats’ conversations “on the urgent work of advancing” two elections and voting rights-related bills.

One is a slimmed-down version of the House-passed elections and campaign finance overhaul bill that has the backing of all 50 Democratic Caucus members and that Manchin helped write. The other is a Manchin-backed substitute version of a House-passed bill to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down in a 2013 Supreme Court decision. 

“There is a universal view in our caucus that we need to pass legislation to protect our democracy,” Schumer said. “What the Republican legislatures are doing — on a purely partisan basis — is undermining, destroying our democracy.”

Schumer did not offer a timeline for passing the voting rights and election bills. His only comments about the schedule were a threat to keep the Senate in session this weekend and next week to process nominations, which he blamed Republicans for blocking.

“Democrats are working to clear as much of the [nominations] backlog as possible by consent,” Schumer said. “If we cannot make much progress, we may need to stay and hold votes on nominees this weekend and next week until we do.”

Senate Republicans may not stay in town just to vote on nominations since Democrats don’t need their votes to confirm them. 

“That’s not a real compelling reason for a lot of people to be here,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said. 

Voting rights pressure

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who faces a tough reelection fight next year, is among those pushing for a renewed focus on elections and voting rights legislation.

In a floor speech Tuesday after the Senate passed a debt limit increase bill under a temporary Senate rules change enabling it to bypass the typical 60-vote cloture threshold, Warnock said the same deference should be granted to voting rights legislation. Republicans helped Democrats pass the temporary rule change for the debt limit, however, and are unlikely to do so for voting rights.

[House clears $2.5 trillion debt limit increase, ending fiscal drama]

While praising the “major economic investments we’re putting the finishing touches on” in reconciliation, Warnock said the “most important thing that we can do this Congress is to get voting rights done. Voting rights are preservative of all other rights. They lay the ground for all of the other debates.”

Warnock won a special election runoff by 2 percentage points in January, and is running for a full term next year. But that election will be run using new restrictions adopted by the GOP-controlled legislature and governor earlier this year if not superseded by federal law or a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department.

Senate Democrats have attempted to pass both voting bills already but have been unsuccessful in getting the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. Groups of Democratic senators have huddled for weeks to discuss changes to the Senate rules that would allow the party to pass the voting rights bills with a simple-majority vote. 

“We believe that we can restore the Senate to work the way it’s supposed to, and at the same time deal with voting rights, and that is what we are aiming to do,” Schumer said.

The rules change discussions, like the reconciliation package negotiations, have both run into opposition from Manchin. 

Manchin has held bipartisan meetings to discuss broader rules changes that both parties could support to speed up consideration of bills and nominations in the slow-moving Senate. But he has said opposes one-party, simple-majority rules changes, otherwise known as the “nuclear option.” Democrats and Republicans have both deployed the nuclear option in the past to lower the 60-vote threshold for nominations. 

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said he’s engaged in the discussions about rules changes but he didn’t sound optimistic about finding a resolution to appease Manchin. 

“That requires us to have support on the floor of everybody in our caucus if we don’t get Republican support,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And to do that in mid-term, it’s very difficult to get Republican support.“

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., emerged from a meeting on the potential rules changes Wednesday citing progress despite the group missing its deadline last week to reach agreement. “The goal is to get it done as quickly as we can,” he said. 

Tester, who readily acknowledges he is one of the most optimistic senators, said he thinks Democrats can consider the voting rights and reconciliation bills this month.

But he acknowledged the timing of the spending and tax package “is a little more uncertain” because most of the bill has yet to go through bipartisan arguments to the Senate parliamentarian on whether certain provisions comply with the Byrd rule.

Manchin for his part has remained largely mum and said he doesn’t control the schedule. 

“I’m just waiting,” he said. “I’m not in charge.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that the House, which wrapped up its legislative business for the year earlier in the morning, would return if needed to consider Senate-passed compromises on reconciliation and voting rights.

Joe-mentum?

While Manchin has yet to find a compromise version of the reconciliation package he likes, he has been on board with Senate Democrats’ updated voting rights and election overhaul bills for months. 

[5 things to know about the voting rights bill named for John Lewis]

After opposing a comprehensive House-passed version of the broader elections bill, Manchin worked with his colleagues on a slimmed-down package that incorporates much of the House language but scrapped lobbying and federal ethics provisions.

The House-passed bill would establish minimum standards for voting across the country, such as same-day voter registration, universal voting by mail and minimum periods for early voting. It would also require additional disclosures for groups that engage in election-related spending.

The revised bill seeks to put an end to partisan gerrymandering by setting specific criteria for congressional redistricting. It also provides new protections for election workers and would set Election Day as a federal holiday.

Advocates of the Manchin compromise bill said they have been working to build support for it, including holding rallies outside of the White House. 

“I think there is a tremendous amount of pressure on them to deliver on voting rights,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause.

Manchin tried to build support among Republicans, but so far no one from that side of the aisle has offered support for the elections package. He did, however, get Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to support the Senate compromise measure on the Voting Rights Act update.

Byrd bath scheduling

Some Senate Democrats on Wednesday weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel on passing reconciliation this year.

The bipartisan “Byrd bath” presentations to the Senate parliamentarian are starting to get scheduled. Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper said he expects his panel’s portion of the bill, which has yet to be publicly released, to go through the Byrd bath this weekend. 

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has continuously described the Byrd bath process a “slog,” said he is pushing for the arguments to continue even if floor action is delayed into January. 

“I want to do as much as we can to move this as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “I hope that we’re going to be certainly making headway as we go into the weekend on those issues.”

Democrats punting on the bill would be a minor victory for Republicans who have been pressuring Manchin to hold firm in his opposition. 

Thune said Manchin’s continued opposition, the ongoing work on the bill and the limited days left in the year has led to more Democrats realizing they can’t pass the reconciliation package before Christmas.  

“They’re coming through the stages of grief and they’re getting to the acceptance stage that it’s not going to happen,” he said. 

Laura Weiss, Joseph Morton, Mary Ellen McIntire, David Lerman, Paul M. Krawzak , Jennifer Shutt and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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