We’ll know if voting rights still have a chance by the end of the week
Sen. Joe Manchin is scheduled to meet with his Democratic colleagues tomorrow to chat about the path forward on a critical issue. Plus: A year’s worth of memes in a surprisingly hilarious SNL sketch.
In a letter to Senate Democrats last week, Leader Chuck Schumer outlined a list of legislative priorities he hoped to accomplish before his caucus left Washington for the holidays.
It included passing billions of dollars in military funding (which passed last week) and lifting the amount of money the government can borrow to pay our debt (which will pass this week). Schumer plans to put the Build Back Better Act, which comprises a bunch of President Biden’s jobs and climate proposals, on the floor with the hopes it passes by Christmas. But Senators are still in thorny negotiations over key provisions and two of the 50 Democrats Schumer will need to pass the legislation are still uncommitted to supporting it.
He also wants to give voting rights another go, a concern that has seen little progress as Republican-led state and local legislatures have chilled the country will all manner of anti-voter laws supposedly designed to prevent a level of election fraud that doesn’t exist while really suppressing the will of a growing electorate that thinks their government should serve the many instead of the few.
But Senate rules, as we’ve discussed in the past, require 60 votes for most bills. And Republicans are almost unanimously united against any federal check on these state and local voting restrictions. Schumer has been unable to advance a voting-rights bill to a debate, the step before a vote could take place, as Republicans are content to simply run out the clock until their next opportunity to reclaim their congressional majorities next November. They are, of course, engaged in a filibuster. And although it isn’t a privilege isn’t afforded by the Constitution, it’s one Senate purists in both parties have committed themselves to protect.
Last week though, through some weird backroom negotiations with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Schumer got Republicans to bypass the filibuster to lift the debt ceiling and voting rights advocates are hopeful that Democrats can convince Sen. Joe Manchin to consider making a similar exception to pass a voting rights compromise he brokered earlier this summer. The calculus is that Manchin has lost some of his leverage: The entire point of Democrats signing on to the compromise was because he claimed it would attract enough Republican support to pass, which we now know isn’t. Another consideration is that Senators are a lot like journalists in the fact that we both require a deadline in order to work with any modicum of urgency. If the Senate doesn’t move soon, then they’ll be unable to undo the damage of these state and local bills. We should know more soon since Manchin is expected to meet with moderate Democrats on the path forward tomorrow.
I spent the talking to voting rights leaders. And when I broached the idea of a filibuster exception, for some reason I expected them to express more optimism than I was able to detect voice, text or email. But many of them are skeptical of the idea that Manchin would ever go for it and refuse to get their hopes up only to be let down again. And others, like Kat Calvin, founder of Spread The Vote, a nonprofit organization that helps people obtain a government-issued photo ID and provides nonpartisan voter education, pointed me to the substance of the actual bill Democrats want to pass.
“For me, the big issue isn’t whether or not they care out some sort of [exception to the] filibuster,” Calvin said. “For me, the issue is that if they pass Joe Manchin’s voting rights bill, it will be a complete disaster for low- and no-income Black and brown voters, for unhoused voters, for seniors, for young people, for everyone who doesn’t have an ID.”
What Calvin is referring to is a provision in the Freedom To Vote Act, the compromise to the comprehensive For The People Act that Republicans blocked on multiple occasions earlier this year, that enforces a photo-ID requirement that was once a nonstarter for Democrats. And as I wrote in October:
The Freedom to Vote Act would reform voter registration and voting access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance. It would ensure automatic and same-day registration, vote-by-mail and early voting and limit the removal of voters from voter rolls. The FTVA would also establish Election Day as a federal holiday. And it would re-enfranchise individuals who have been convicted of a criminal offense to vote in federal elections while establishing a new criminal offense for conduct that hinders, interferes with or prevents another person from registering to vote or helping someone register to vote. The FTVA would also require states to conduct post-election audits for federal elections and prohibit campaign spending by foreign nationals and require additional disclosures and disclaimers on campaign-related fundraising, spending and political advertising.
But the FTVA would also enable local officials to purge voter rolls and fail to curtail the torrent of dark money that give corporations and special interests outsized influence in federal elections and policymaking. So while Democrats would celebrate any voting rights legislation as a win, Calvin estimates 21 million people would still be excluded from the electoral process and elected leaders could still skirt campaign finance laws with relative ease if they wanted to.
The issue of voting rights is a part of Vice President Kamala Harris‘s executive portfolio. And as she’s worked behind the scenes to negotiate with her former colleagues in the Senate and soothe the anxieties of civil rights leaders who feel as though time is slipping away, the White House has publicly reiterated President Joe Biden‘s commitment to the cause. But critics say the president has failed to demonstrate the same vigor on pass voting rights that we’ve seen with the infrastructure bill he signed into law in November after months of negotiations or the Build Back Better Act, which passed the House last month too. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris did not respond when asked to comment for this story.
Sources referred me to a CNN town hall with the president in October, where Biden signaled an openness to reform the filibuster to pass voting rights ahead of next year’s midterm elections, which could divide the government if Democrats lose the House or Senate (or both) and make it all but impossible for Biden to govern any meaningful issues. “We’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster,” Biden said during the town hall. But when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked if the president was still open to the idea, she has a less enthusiastic response. “I don’t have anything to update you on in terms of the legislative process and the president’s view on that at this point.”
No matter what happens, Calvin says her focus is on organizing people’s energy toward state and local elections — both out of necessity, in case Democrats lose their House or Senate majorities, and because most of the decisions that impact everyday Americans happen at that level.
“That’s how we build benches,” Calvin said. “If we’re looking at who’s actually progressive, who’s young, who’s female, who’s a person of color, who’s LGBT, they’re running for state and local office. So if we want eventually to have a really progressive Congress that is actually making the change we want, we have to start by focusing on who we are electing to school board, at the city council, at the state legislature because those are the people who then work their way up.”
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Editor’s Note: This is the last week of daily newsletters for 2021. I’ll be off the final two weeks of 2021 to rest and prep for the new year. Later this week, I’ll share a year in review post with the top posts of the year so we can reflect on the wildness of these past 12 months together. Stay tuned!
Today in Politics
President Biden received his daily intelligence briefing then met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall on the federal response to the tornadoes and extreme weather that took place over the weekend. In the afternoon, he signed an executive order to streamline government services to save you more time and money.
Biden’s week ahead:
Tue Dec 14: President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Jill Biden, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoffwill attend a holiday celebration for the Democratic National Committee.
Wed Dec 15: The president will travel to Kentucky for a storm briefing and to survey damage from the weekend tornadoes and extreme weather.
Thu Dec 16: Biden will award the Medal of Honor to three service members for their valor. The first lady, vice president and second gentleman will also attend.
Fri Dec 17: Biden will travel to South Carolina to speak at South Carolina State University’s fall graduation ceremony.
Vice President Harris received a briefing in Maryland this morning on electric vehicle investments in the bipartisan infrastructure deal and Build Back Better Act before delivering remarks. National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm joined Harris and also delivered remarks. The vice president then met this afternoon with CEOs to discuss private sector investment in Central America.
The House is not in session. Members are expected this week to consider legislation on lifting the federal debt limit and a bill on combating Islamophobia. The House is also expected to consider a resolution to hold former T**** chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt for his refusal to comply with a subpoena from the committee investigating the Jan 6. attack on the Capitol.
The Senate is in session and voting on several judicial nominees.
In The Know
Local officials expect the death toll to continue to climb after devastating tornadoes ripped through six states — Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. The weekend storms killed more than 80 people and destroyed thousands of properties. (Fernando Alfonso III, Adrienne Vogt, Nadeem Muaddi, Nectar Gan and Steve George / CNN)
Related: Amazon workers say a ban on phones at work makes it harder to receive breaking news and contact first responders during emergencies. Six people were killed in a roof collapse at an Amazon warehouse during the storms this past weekend. (Spencer Soper / Bloomberg)