Congressional Democrats have made the For the People Act their indispensable voting law. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “failure is not an option.”
But what if the must-pass invoice cannot be passed?
That is the dilemma that party leaders may soon face in trying to get the bill passed in parliament in March through the Senate. The Upper Chamber Democrats plan to meet on Thursday to discuss the strategy around the bill.
The nearly 800-page bill (often referred to as “HR 1” or “S 1”, numbered in each chamber) would revise electoral policy in the United States and set national standards to make it easier for more people to vote. Prohibition of partisan gerrymandering and charging the power of small donations to federal candidates under many other provisions.
With the Republican Party’s growing hostility to the idea of respecting the election results (as evidenced by the purge of Rep. Liz Cheney of the GOP leadership of the House), the Democrats argue that something must be done to maintain American democracy protect. In particular, the For the People Act would counteract many voting restrictions enacted by Republicans at the state level and attempt to prevent a new round of partisan gerrymandering in GOP-controlled states.
The bill contains many provisions that are well coordinated, but it faces formidable obstacles to passage through the Senate – from filibuster to criticism from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) to quieter concerns from other Democrats. It does not currently appear that Democrats have a plausible strategy for overcoming these obstacles.
Schumer has indicated that his first step will be to unite all 50 Senate Democrats around the bill, rather than thinking about changing the rules aimed at overcoming the filibuster. That would mean winning Manchin. But even if he manages to do that, he would also have to get Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and other moderates on board to change the rules of the Senate. It will not be easy.
Four barriers to the For the People Act’s chances of success
The first problem with the For the People Act, of course, is the legislative filibuster. Under current Senate rules, this bill would require 60 votes to overcome a given GOP filibuster. Democrats only have 50 Senate seats, so they’d have to win over 10 Republicans. It’s not happening – Republicans in Congress have been unanimous in opposition to the law, believing it would affect their party’s chances of winning the election. In order for it to be passed in its current form, the Senate rules would have to be changed. Democrats could theoretically ram with their votes by changing the rules, either to completely abolish the filibuster or to create a special new exception to proxy laws.
So the second problem is that moderate Democrats simply don’t want to change Senate rules in order to weaken the filibuster. Sens. Manchin and Sinema were the outright opponents of a rule change – Manchin told me last month: “If we get rid of the filibuster, we will lose the purpose of this democracy.” An unknown number of other moderate Democrats sympathize with this view. So you currently do not have the votes to change the rules.
The third problem is that even if the Democrats ordered the votes to somehow abolish the filibuster, Manchin has said it is inclined to oppose any partisan efforts to revise the votes in the country. “Given the tensions we have now, how on earth could you allow a voting bill to restructure America’s voting on a partisan line?” he asked, arguing that such a move would fuel more “anarchy” of the kind that took place at the Capitol on January 6th. If Manchin sticks to it, the For the People Act is essentially dead.
Then there is a fourth problem: other Congressional Democrats have tacit concerns about aspects of the For the People Act, as I wrote in April. The party is almost unanimous in public, with all but one House Democrat voting in favor, and every Senate Democrat except Manchin is a co-sponsor. But some members of the Black Caucus of Congress are not keen on it (they fear that restructuring reforms would water down mostly black districts), and moderate senators also have doubts.
So there is really only one who is even remotely plausible Here’s how the For the People Act can become law: All 50 Democratic Senators, including Manchin, must band together to not only support the bill itself (meaning either the bill needs to be changed or the holdouts give in), but Senate rules are also changing that would allow the bill to pass by simple majority and escape a filibuster.
Activists say they will fight to make sure this happens. Ezra Levin of progressive group Indivisible told NBC News, “We are at a turning point in American history. One way is a Trump-inspired white plutocracy and the other is a representative democracy. “However, it is unclear whether these activists have any influence on Manchin, who is the last Democrat in a state that Trump won in 2020 by almost 39 points.
Progressives hope that someone – whether it’s Schumer, President Joe Biden, or someone else – can figure out how to get Manchin moving. In the end, however, the decision rests with him. And when I asked about the filibuster, he said his most recent statement that there is “no circumstance” under which he will vote to weaken or eliminate it means what he says. “If you want to argue about it for two years,” he told me, “you will be wasting a lot of energy and time.”
If he persists it puts the democratic leaders in a rather uncomfortable position. They have based on their insistence that passing this bill is essential to uphold American democracy – but they may not actually be able to do so.