Skip to content

Senate Democrats craft plan to start debate on voting legislation

Using House ‘shell’ means debate can begin, but passage still uncertain

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., conducts a news conference on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer plans to use a House-passed bill to get around an expected filibuster and begin debate on bills to revamp federal voting laws. But final passage is still uncertain.

“To ultimately end debate and pass the voting rights legislation, we will need 10 Republicans to join us — which we know from past experience will not happen,” Schumer wrote in a memo obtained by CQ Roll Call.

Democrats’ attempts to start debate on voting rights bills were blocked twice last year by Republican filibusters, prompting numerous calls — joined Tuesday by President Joe Biden — for the Senate to craft an exemption for voting rights bills that would not subject them to a 60-vote threshold applied to most legislation.

One action that is not subject to that rule is bringing up a measure that has already passed in both chambers in different forms. Schumer says the House Rules Committee will bring up legislation relating to NASA and use it as a “shell” for voting rights measures.

If that revised measure is passed by the House, the Senate could bring it up without needing 60 votes to proceed. But ending debate would require 60 votes, even if Democrats could then pass it with just 50 votes and the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

If Republican votes are not found for the measures, Schumer said in the memo, “We will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before.

“If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?” the majority leader wrote. “In the coming days, we will most likely confront this sobering question — together.”

Senate Democrats have tried to bring up two bills, one that sets minimum standards for elections, including access to mail-in ballots and early voting, and another named in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis that restores sections of the Voting Rights Act — a landmark civil rights bill designed to fight racial discrimination — that were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Schumer had set a deadline of Monday, the national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., to get the bills to the floor, but agreement in his caucus on whether, and how, to change rules to thwart another filibuster remained elusive. Biden announced he would attend Thursday’s Senate Democratic caucus to discuss the issue, but using a House-passed “shell” would let Schumer keep up the appearance of action, even as success was far from guaranteed.

The legislative maneuvering came after voting rights activists said they were heartened by Biden and Harris’ efforts this week, including speeches Tuesday in Georgia, but made clear that they wanted more action and a roadmap for enacting the laws, not just talk. 

“We wanted to hear a plan,” said Kendra Cotton of the New Georgia Project, which is pushing for the legislation, during a press call Wednesday morning. “We did not hear specifics,” she added, while noting that activists were “disappointed” that Biden did not “call out directly” Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema, who have said they do not support rolling back the filibuster rules.

Vyanti Joseph of the Asian American Advocacy Fund called the administration’s speeches this week a great step but said: “We need to see movement.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Wednesday he would have no part of the effort, saying on the Senate floor that Biden’s speech was “incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office.” He noted that even with the voting law Biden railed against, “Georgia has more early voting days than Delaware or New York. … If Georgia or Texas present Jim Crow emergencies, then so do a whole lot of Democratic-run states.”

Schumer said Wednesday that senators were still working on negotiations within the party when it comes to the filibuster.

“So we’re having a lot of serious, long, and intense meetings with Senators Manchin and Sinema,” Schumer of New York told reporters Wednesday, noting nine senators met Tuesday night with Sinema and on Wednesday morning with Manchin.

“We are trying to come to a place, we’re not there yet, I wouldn’t want to delude anybody into thinking this is easy, but we’re trying to come to a place where 50 senators can support two bills, the Freedom to Vote Act, and the John Lewis Act, and with a change in the rules, so we can get the votes to pass these bills into law,” Schumer said.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester acknowledged the difficult task but said during a virtual event hosted by the Center for American Progress Wednesday he would like to do away with the filibuster for all legislation. He said he would vote for a carve-out specifically for voting rights measures.

“I’m there, and I will do it,” Tester said.

Recent Stories

At Aspen conference, a call to prioritize stopping gun violence

Appeals court rules preventive care task force unconstitutional

Key players return to Congressional Softball Game, this time at the microphone

Bannon asks Supreme Court to keep him out of prison

Her family saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Now Rep. Becca Balint seeks to ‘hold this space’

Supreme Court clarifies when a gun law is constitutional