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Democrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl

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The Hill
The Hill
 2021-06-18
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Democrats are racing against the clock as they try to strike an internal deal on a sweeping election overhaul that can unify their 50 members.

The Senate will vote Tuesday on the For the People Act, legislation that is guaranteed to hit a Republican filibuster and fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

But Democrats hope that by banding together they can shift the public spotlight on GOP opposition after weeks of headlines about their own divisions.

Speaking from the Senate floor on Thursday, Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) previewed the strategy, arguing that the Republican Party had become a “hornet’s nest of conspiracy theories and voter suppression in the states” and that “the Democratic Party is the only party standing up for democracy right now.”

“Next week, the Senate will have this debate. Democrats will bring forward legislation to protect voting rights and safeguard our democracy. And we are going to see where everyone stands. Everyone,” Schumer said.

Democrats are increasingly optimistic that they’ll win over all 50 caucus members, but they currently have one big holdout: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Manchin has publicly criticized the For the People Act, arguing it’s too broad and doesn’t have any GOP support. He’s warned that he can’t support the bill as it was introduced, nor an updated version spearheaded by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that largely keeps the underlying legislation intact while giving state and local governments more time to enact its provisions.

Instead, Manchin circulated a list to Democrats last week, which was shared with reporters this week, outlining what he does, and doesn’t, support in the roughly 800-page bill.

And in a boon for Democrats, Manchin described his position at length on Thursday during a closed-door caucus lunch, after missing two previous caucus meetings on voting rights and not speaking at a third.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has been working with Manchin, said the meeting was “about Joe presenting what he wanted. And then us sort of analyzing.”

“So we were walking through what Joe says he wants and then lining that up against S. 1. There is the making there for a very, very substantive bill that can combine all 50 Dems,” Kaine said, referring to the bill number.

“There’s still a discussion about, you know, some things that he might want and how might that affect one state that is different than his,” Kaine added.

Manchin outlined roughly two dozen ideas that garnered his approval, including making Election Day a public holiday, mandating at least 15 consecutive days for early voting in federal elections, banning gerrymandering and making voter registration automatic through state departments of motor vehicles.

Manchin also, according to a version of his list obtained by The Hill, backs tighter campaign finance requirements currently in the For the People Act, such as requiring online and digital ads to disclose their source, similar to TV and radio ads, tighter ethics requirements for presidents and vice presidents, and requiring campaigns and committees to report foreign contacts.

But he’s also recommended jettisoning one of the more controversial parts of the For the People Act: public financing of campaigns. Additionally, while he supports absentee voting, he doesn’t go so far as to endorse no-excuse absentee voting. And in a move likely to rankle some Democrats, Manchin is proposing voter ID requirements, with the possibility of alternatives like a utility bill to provide proof of identity, in order to vote.

After Thursday’s meeting, Manchin declined to say how he will vote on Tuesday, but credited his fellow Democrats with being open to the changes he’s proposing.

“It’s a very good, constructive dialogue,” Manchin said, describing Democrats as “very receptive.”

Manchin also suggested that if he can work out a deal with Democrats, he would vote to advance the bill on Tuesday.

"If there's a substitute [amendment] that keeps everything open, I think we all want to do that,” he said.

Manchin’s remarks, and his written requests, are sending a jolt through what has been a weeks-long stalemate between increasingly exasperated progressives and the moderate-minded senator. And the dialogue is boosting hopes from Manchin’s fellow Democratic senators that they’ll be able to put up 50 votes behind a compromise election bill next week.

According to Democratic senators, Thursday’s lunch meeting also included remarks — largely positive — from Klobuchar, Merkley and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), a strong advocate for voting rights.

Klobuchar, talking to reporters afterward, said the atmosphere in the room was “all positive.”

“We need unity to take on what is the biggest voter suppression effort probably since the civil rights days,” Klobuchar said.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Democrats' chief deputy whip, declined to predict a vote count but said that he was “optimistic.”

"We're all constructively engaged on the substance. It was a serious and constructive conversation," Schatz said.

Being able to unify the entire caucus would also take away one of the GOP’s favorite talking points. An email blast to reporters from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ’s (R-Ky.) office on Thursday, was titled: “Dems Remain Divided On S.1, While Republicans Are Uniformly Opposed.”

But even if Democrats prove McConnell wrong and are able to put up 50 votes for advancing the bill, it doesn’t change the ultimate result: The legislation doesn’t have the votes to get through the Senate.

If Democrats are unified on Tuesday, it’s likely to fuel more calls from progressives to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster, which many on the left see as the biggest roadblock to enacting President Biden ’s agenda.

Republicans have come out in lockstep against the For the People Act, and McConnell said even Manchin’s changes won’t be enough to pick up any GOP support.

"I would make this observation about the revised version ... all Republicans I think will oppose that as well if that were to be what surfaced on the floor," McConnell told reporters, referring to Manchin's proposal.

That will force Democrats toward a decision point on whether they are going to get rid of, or change, the 60-vote requirement for most legislation. But Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are firmly on the record in opposition to eliminating the filibuster, and several other Democrats have made clear they are wary of changing the longtime Senate rule.

Manchin reiterated this week that he won’t support changing the filibuster, shooting down reports that set off a flurry of speculation that he was open to doing so.

“McConnell has the right to do whatever he thinks he can do,” Manchin said. “I would hope that there’s enough Republicans that the bedrock of our society is having an accessible, open, fair and secure elections.”

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