Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) unveiled a new strategy to move forward on both voting reform bills and Senate rules change using a loophole within congressional rules that will open up debate on the Senate floor, but a path to a final passage or weaken the filibuster remains elusive.
In a memo to Senate Democrats, Schumer outlined the loophole plan that will avoid Republicans from blocking formal debate over the legislation on the Senate floor using the filibuster procedure. For the past year, Schumer has attempted to bring up both election bills, but Republicans in the last four previous attempts have blocked debating the legislation, using the filibuster each time to oppose a cloture vote on the motion to proceed.
"Taking advantage of this existing exception to the Senate's supermajority requirements will allow us to end the Republicans' ability to block debate on voting rights legislation," Schumer wrote in the memo to Senate Democrats laying out his plan Wednesday evening. "The Senate will finally debate voting rights legislation, and then every senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass the legislation to protect our democracy."
Before the two major Democrat bills are brought to the Senate, it first will return back to the House. The House Rules Committee would amend the measure by merging both bills into a single text through a procedural maneuver. The House would amend the modified measure as a "shell bill" with contents of the consolidated bill stuffed into an unrelated bill dealing with NASA leasing "underutilized" property to private groups.
The Freedom to Vote Act aims to federalize elections by nullifying Republican-led states voting integrity reform measures. It would require all 50 states to allow 15 consecutive days of early voting, easy mail-in ballot requests without restrictions, allow new voters to register and vote on Election Day without voter identity verification, and make Election Day a national holiday.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, would restore parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act removed by the Supreme Court ruling, including "preclearance" mandate that would force jurisdiction to await approval from the Justice Department before making any attempts on changing their voting laws.
The consolidated bill will now be known as the "Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act" The "Shell bill" will strip legislation of existing NASA language and replace it with the text of the consolidated voting reform bill.
The newly constructed measure cleared two procedural votes in the House along party lines late Wednesday evening. After the House passes the updated "shell" consolidated bill expected to occur Thursday morning, it will be sent to the Senate as a "message." From there, Schumer will file a motion to concur to kick start the debate process of both bills on the Senate floor. It will also prevent Republicans opportunity to filibuster. Under congressional procedures, a "message" is considered privileged in which the Senate can't debate on whether to motion to proceed of the legislation.
"The Senate will then be able to debate voting rights legislation for the first time this Congress," Schumer wrote. "Senators can finally make clear to the American people where they stand on protecting our democracy and preserving the right of every eligible American to cast a ballot."
However, ending debate on both bills will be a challenge as 60 votes are needed for cloture. Republicans are guaranteed to filibuster an end to floor debate to prevent a final vote of both legislation. That will prompt Schumer to begin a public showdown debate of bypassing the filibuster.
"With this procedure, we will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation — something that Republicans have thus far denied," Schumer wrote, revealing his plan to bring debate on the filibuster. "Of course, 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 — or we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before."
Schumer has warned Senators to expect to stay in D.C. over the weekend, with the possibility of the final vote taking place next Monday as pre-scheduled. Speaking to reporters, Schumer revealed it would be an uphill battle, noting that his caucus was still weighing several potential changes to weaken the filibuster. The Democratic leader needs all 50 Senators on board before going nuclear on the filibuster, something he doesn't have.
Two moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) oppose changing the filibuster rule despite wholeheartedly supporting the legislation. Neither is fully on board in changing the filibuster rules solely on party lines in order to get Democratic only measures passed without bipartisan support.
President Biden is expected to appear at Capitol Hill Thursday to attend the Senate Democratic caucus luncheon, where he plans to urge his members to eradicate the filibuster to expedite the passage of the voting rights legislation.