WASHINGTON — In the last week of May, Senate Democrats arrived at a cavernous room in the Hart office building and settled in for a presentation from Marc Elias, one of the leading election lawyers for the Democratic Party. Elias had spent the last year locked in legal combat with Donald Trump’s campaign and various allies of the former president’s who had sued to change voting laws and tighten ballot access before the 2020 election. The lawyering showed no sign of slowing down in 2021, as Elias filed more suits across the country in response to the wave of voter-suppression bills passed by Republican state legislatures.
Elias painted a dire picture of the struggle for voting rights at the state level, where a decade of gerrymandering and well-funded political organizing have given the GOP a commanding advantage. Without a forceful response by Democrats in Congress, he said, according to a congressional aide briefed on the presentation, the party would lose its House and Senate majorities and not win those majorities back in Elias’ lifetime.
Yet for the moment, the Democratic Party’s answer to this call-to-arms, a massive bill called the For the People Act, looks doomed. With a few weeks to go until the Senate votes on the bill, also known as S. 1, Democrats don’t have the votes needed to beat a filibuster. They might not even win the support of all 50 Democrats when the vote takes place. And if the bill fails, the party of John Lewis will have missed one of its best chances to counter the assault on voting rights taking place at the state level headed into a decisive midterm election.
Is the fight to protect the ballot and a healthy democracy doomed? Will Democrats miss their chance for reform at a time when Republican legislators have weaponized the conspiracy theories about election fraud to pass new restrictions on voting in time for the 2024 midterms? “The path is not always clear,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a progressive who cosponsored the For the People Act, tells me.
“There is a lot in play,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) says. “Can we find an S. 1 that unites all the Democrats?”
Even before Trump left office, Democrats knew that repairing the damage done to American democracy would rank high on their priority lists. It’s no coincidence that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate designated their respective versions of the For the People Act as H.R. 1 and S. 1. But with slim majorities in the House and Senate, the path to passing any form of democratic reform and voting-rights legislation was going to be difficult in the face of fierce Republican obstruction and a filibuster rule that requires supermajorities for non-fiscal bill
The House passed its version of the bill on a party-line vote this spring, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced to his colleagues that the Senate would vote on the bill in late June. In interviews and public comments, Schumer has left no doubt about the need to pass the For the People Act, saying on many occasions that when it came to protecting voting rights and restoring faith in government, “Failure is not an option.”
Yet with a few weeks until the vote, there are no good options available to the Democrats. From the start, it wasn’t clear how Democrats would find 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. Worse, not all 50 Democrats support the bill as it’s currently written. In private, multiple Senate Democrats who have co-sponsored the bill have voiced concerns about different provisions, according to a Senate aide briefed on private discussions about the For the People Act. Last weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) went public with his opposition to the bill, saying he couldn’t support it if had no support among Republicans. “I have always said, ‘If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’ ” he wrote in an op-ed. “And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda.”
The push to get at least all 50 Senate Democrats on board with the bill has divided into public and private pressure campaigns largely aimed at one person: Joe Manchin.
On Monday, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a cofounder of the Poor People’s Campaign, will lead a Moral Monday march in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia. The purpose will be to demand that Manchin support a version of the For the People as well as reforms to the filibuster, the Senate rule that as written allows a minority of senators to block most types of legislation if the majority can’t find at least 60 votes in support. “What McConnell & Manchin are doing is preventing a government that works for the people,” Barber tweeted. “It’s just wrong.”
Activists and faith leaders based in West Virginia have also taken aim at Manchin since he made public his opposition to the For the People Act as well as filibuster reform. Those activists point to the broad bipartisan support for the bill in West Virginia even among Republicans, according to polling commissioned by End Citizens United, a progressive group that supports the For the People Act and has spent millions of dollars to urge senators to vote for it.
“Senator Manchin has this idea of bipartisanship that is not formed in reality,” David Fryson, pastor-elect of The New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City, said in a recent press conference. Manchin, Fryson, added, “is wrong on the politics of it. There is broad bipartisan support. Even more important than the politics of it, Sen. Manchin is wrong on the morality of it.”
There’s also a behind-the-scenes effort in Washington to lobby Manchin to support the For the People Act, or at least some version of it. In his op-ed, Manchin said his opposition had everything to do with the absence of any Republican support and not any specific provisions in the bill itself. Two congressional aides who support the bill tell Rolling Stone that Sen. Klobuchar, who chairs the powerful Rules Committee, and other Democrats leading the S. 1 charge recently asked Manchin to pick out which parts of the bill he supported and which parts he didn’t. That way Democrats could make changes and possibly convince Manchin to support it. (A spokeswoman for Manchin did not respond to a request for comment.)
Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that he wouldn’t discuss his private conversations with Manchin. “Is it possible we might change a few things here and there?” Schumer said. “We’re going to do it. We’ve had discussions with Sen. Manchin and they’re continuing.” In the face of this uncertainty, Schumer stressed that the Senate would still “vote on voting-rights legislation, bold legislation, S. 1, in the last week in June.”
Democrats have stressed that a more tailored voting-rights bill named after the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis will also be considered this fall but is not a substitute for the For the People Act. That bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, would bring back a process known as preclearance, forcing states to essentially get approval from the Justice Department to make changes to their voting rules and elections procedures. Voter ID laws, redraw political boundary lines, purging voter rolls — all of those would require “preclearance” by the DOJ.
Manchin says he supports the bill, which gives it a greater chance of winning 50 votes, but it accomplishes far less than the For the People Act. There are also doubts over whether it would survive a legal challenge. Sen. Jeff Merkley says it would be “absolutely insufficient” to pass only the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. What’s more, he fears the bill would get struck down by the conservative-leaning Supreme Court, which removed similar voting provisions from the Voting Rights Act of 1967 in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case.
Jim Manley, who worked as a senior aide to former Majority Leader Harry Reid, says he was perplexed why Democrats waited so long to make changes to the bill when they knew full well that even some Democrats had problems with it. Manley says he was encouraged to see both Schumer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announce that they planned to amend the bill as they try to rally all 50 Democrats behind some version of the legislation.
Faced with no great options, Manley says, Schumer appears to have chosen the route of trying to get Manchin and the other 49 senators, forcing Republicans into a filibuster, and using the vote as yet another example of Republican obstruction stopping popular policies. “There are no deals to be had with McConnell,” Manley tells me. “So something’s gotta force action and if a failed vote has to occur, so be it.”
Sen. Whitehouse tells me that he supports both forcing a vote on the For the People Act and later voting on the most popular elements of that bill individually. Doing so, he says, would drive home the depth of Republican obstruction to policies that would prohibit gerrymandering abuses and the flow of dark money in politics, and would create a political advantage for Democrats as the next election approaches. “What you’ve really done is set the stage to show how the filibuster is being used to stop things that are popular,” he says, and adds that this would be the best way to make the case for reforming or eliminating the filibuster.
In this strategy, Whitehouse says, the defeat of S. 1 “is the beginning, not the end, of the campaign.”