WASHINGTON — With a make-or-break vote looming in the Senate on a sweeping voting-rights and anti-corruption bill, President Joe Biden and his advisers have said in recent weeks that Biden will pressure wavering Democrats to support reforming the filibuster if necessary to pass the voting bill.
According to three people briefed on the White House’s position and its recent communications with outside groups, Biden assured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was ready to push for filibuster reform. Biden’s pressure would aim to help Schumer convince moderate Democrats to support a carveout to the filibuster, a must for the party if it’s going to pass new voting protections without Republican votes. According to a source briefed on the White House’s position, Biden told Schumer: “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.”
The Senate returns to work this upcoming week, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intends to call a vote on the For the People Act, the most ambitious reform bill in decades and the Democrats’ best shot at countering the wave of state-level GOP voter suppression laws this year. But to get the bill out of Congress, Senate Democrats will almost certainly need to change the filibuster, the procedural tactic used by the minority party to block many types of legislation.
Publicly, there are two centrist Democrats who have stated their opposition to changing or abolishing the filibuster, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Activist groups and fellow Democratic senators say Manchin and Sinema are the likely 49th and 50th votes both on any voting-rights legislation and especially any filibuster reforms. Sources say both senators are likely targets for when Biden launches his final push to pass a compromise version of the For the People Act.
“I think there’s a clear recognition the president will have a role to play in bringing this over the finish line, and if in order to do that, we need [filibuster] rules reform, then so be it,” says Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped write the original version of the For the People Act. “I think Joe Biden with his long history and experience in the Senate can see that.”
A White House spokesman declined to comment on any private conversations between Biden and congressional leaders. The official said that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been “deeply involved” with the push to pass new voting protections. “The president and vice president have been very clear that this is a crucial priority and senior White House staff across many departments are constantly working on it,” the official said.
Even with a lobbying blitz from Biden, the path to passing the For the People Act is a tricky one. A group of senators will soon release a compromise version of the For the People Act intended to satisfy Manchin’s concerns about earlier versions of the bill. Sources familiar with the compromise bill say it will focus on shoring up voting rights against GOP suppression laws, crack down on dark money and partisan gerrymandering, and create new policies to stop attempts at election subversion like what happened after the 2020 presidential election.
But even if the revised bill earns the support of all Democrats, it won’t be enough to overcome the filibuster. Schumer will not only need to prevent a single defection on the bill itself but also convince — with Biden’s help — all 50 Democrats to create a carveout in the filibuster for voting-rights-related legislation.
The consequences of failing to pass a new voting law are stark. Since Donald Trump’s defeat, Republican-led state legislatures have used the former president’s delusional claims about a “stolen” election as a pretext to enact a nationwide crackdown on voting rights. Eighteen states have passed more than 30 laws that restrict the right to vote. The most recent — and arguably most draconian — example was Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott just signed a law that bans 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, which helped people vote safely during a pandemic, while also giving new powers to outside poll watchers and partisan election officials.
As a presidential candidate, Biden vowed that “one of the first things” he’d do if elected president was pass new legislation to protect voting rights, including restoring the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. In March, Biden signed an executive order to promote expanded voting access nationwide. He nominated two civil-rights leaders, Kristen Clarke and Vanita Gupta, to serve in high-ranking positions at the Justice Department. In June, Clarke and Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the DOJ had sued the state of Georgia over a new law that, in Garland’s words, was “enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right of Black Georgians” to cast their ballots.
But Democrats in Congress have gotten nowhere this year in their push to pass different versions of the For the People Act and related anti-corruption bills. Each time, Republican obstruction killed the bills. The biggest defeat happened in June, when Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filibustered the bill, effectively killing it for the summer.
Some outside activist groups say Biden and his administration haven’t done enough to make the case for a new voting-rights bill in Congress. “For a long time there was no engagement,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the government-reform group Democracy 21. Tiffany Muller, president of the anti-corruption group End Citizens United, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer that the lack of urgency from the administration felt even more acute given the energy and organizing happening outside of Washington in support of the For the People Act. “We need that same effort and help (from the Biden administration) on this,” Muller said at the time.
That frustration extended to Biden’s top allies in Congress. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose timely endorsement helped rescue Biden’s flailing presidential campaign in early 2020, begged Biden to endorse a filibuster carve-out for voting rights. During a late-July meeting in the Oval Office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed Biden to do more on voting rights; Democrats needed action from him, according to a person briefed on the meeting.
In that Oval Office meeting, the source says, Biden made a pledge: If Pelosi and Schumer tried every option they had to pass a voting-rights bill with Republican votes and got nowhere, Biden would get involved himself and lobby the handful of moderate Democrats to convince them to weaken the filibuster so that the For the People Act could pass without any Republican votes.
Since then, the tenor has shifted in the White House in the last month, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. The White House has devoted more staff to the issue. More importantly, it has given assurances to outside supporters that Biden now plans to push for filibuster reform when necessary. “They have really engaged in a way that can make a difference both on substance and particularly on process as we get closer to this day of reckoning,” Rep. John Sarbanes says. “They appreciate that the electorate that showed up for Joe Biden in 2020 now wants to see Joe Biden show up for them in 2021.”
When it comes to the filibuster, the Biden administration’s position hasn’t always been clear. In early March, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden didn’t support any changes to the filibuster. A few weeks later, Biden told ABC News that he supported bringing back the so-called talking filibuster, forcing any senator who wanted to block a vote to stand and speak on the Senate floor. A few months after that, Psaki declined to say whether Biden backed creating a carve-out to the filibuster for legislation related to voting rights while also distancing the White House from any potential negotiations about filibuster reform. “The filibuster is a legislative process tool, an important one, that warrants debate,” she said, “but determination about making changes will be made by members of the Senate, not by this president or any president, frankly, moving forward.”
Winning over the two Democrats who’ve declared their opposition to filibuster reform, Sens. Manchin and Sinema, won’t be easy. In April, Manchin wrote in an op-ed that he would not support tweaking or abolishing the filibuster, which he described as a “critical tool” to protect the interests of small and rural states like his. Sinema, for her part, likes to point out how often Democrats used the filibuster when they were in the minority during Donald Trump’s presidency. The filibuster, she wrote in June, “compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles.”
Yet Sinema has broadly endorsed the need for voting-rights reforms, and Manchin says “inaction is not an option.” Congressional aides and anti-corruption activists who support the For the People Act say Schumer’s strategy has been to give Republicans every opportunity to work with Democrats on a compromise bill, and to allow Manchin the space to lead those negotiations, if only to show that Republicans won’t support any version of pro-democracy reform that Democrats come up with. “We continue to see that the Republicans are not willing to negotiate in good faith on these fundamental issues to protect our democracy,” says Tiffany Muller of End Citizens United.
A spokesman for End Citizens United says the group is spending $30 million this year to get the For the People Act onto Biden’s desk, most of that on more than 130 paid ads on TV, digital, and mail. But at this point in the campaign, it’s entirely up to Biden and Senate Democrats to muster the support for filibuster reform and passing a new version of the bill.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 says the For the People Act would be the most ambitious law to uphold voting rights and fight corruption since the slew of post-Watergate reforms in the 1970s. Wertheimer says he expects Biden to do everything he can to make those reforms a reality, but ultimately the decision rests with the 50 Democratic senators. “This is a moment when members of the Senate are going to wind up on the right side or wrong side of history,” Wertheimer says. “The stakes for our democracy are enormous.”