As the House and Senate return to Capitol Hill after their winter recess, Democratic leaders have named voting rights as a top priority. In order to pass the legislation, though, the Senate will likely need to change rules around the filibuster, a process that prevents many bills from passing the Senate without the support of 60 senators. With the Senate split fifty-fifty between Democrats and Republicans, and Republicans wholly united in opposition to voting rights legislation, prospects for passing a federal voting bill are dim.
That’s why many Democrats, including Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, are calling for an end to the current filibuster rules. And while both Klobuchar and Smith have advocated for the elimination of the filibuster as it is practiced today, the need to win over other members of their party — especially West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — has Senate Democrats considering very narrow changes to filibuster rules aimed specifically at making it possible to pass a federal voting bill.
Why Democrats want to change filibuster rules for voting rights
In a letter to other senators Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set a date of January 17 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — as the deadline for the chamber to consider revisiting filibuster rules. Schumer has tied filibuster reform to passing voting reform bills including Sen. Klobuchar’s Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The Freedom to Vote Act is actually the product of a collaboration between Klobuchar and Manchin, after Manchin would not support Klobuchar’s more expansive “For the People Act.” The bill would establish nationwide standards for ballot access as a response to voting restrictions that some Republican legislators have put in place around the country since the 2020 elections. The bill would also mandate that states have at least 15 consecutive days of early voting in elections, including two weekends. It would ensure that all voters can request to vote by mail and establish new automatic voter registration programs and make Election Day a national holiday.
The bill would affect redistricting too, mandating that states follow specific criteria when drawing new district lines in order to end partisan gerrymandering. Another provision in the bill would create new federal protections from partisan interference for state and local election administrators and workers.
One of Manchin’s stated goals for the revised legislation was to come up with a bill that some Republicans would support. So far, that has not happened.
The other piece of voting rights legislation being considered alongside the Freedom to Vote Act is the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The bill would establish a process for reviewing voting changes nationwide, focused on “measures that have historically been used to discriminate against voters” such as the institution of a voter ID law or the reduction of voting materials in multiple languages. Only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has supported this bill.
How the filibuster could change
In a press conference held Tuesday by Schumer, Klobuchar and Sens. Jeff Merkley, Alex Padilla and Raphael Warnock — all of whom have worked on voting rights legislation — Klobuchar said that the Senate rules have been changed many times and that they should be changed again now.
“What we’re talking about is not getting rid of the filibuster, as much as I would personally do that, but we are talking about restoring the Senate to allow major issues of the day to be debated,” Klobuchar said.
Democrats see voting rights as the topic to push filibuster reform because the filibuster has allowed Republicans to block measures in the Senate while Republican state legislatures have been able to pass restrictive voting laws around the country.
“We are seeing in state legislatures efforts to allow partisans to be in charge of certifying election results. That’s what [former] President Trump and his associates were asking to have happen and their efforts to overturn the election,” said Smith. “And all through this year, we have seen increasing levels of attacks on elected officials including voting and elections officials in states across the country. And that is so dangerous.”
Schumer echoed Smith’s sentiment in a “Dear Colleagues” letter: “We must ask ourselves: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?”
Some changes currently being floated by senators involve bringing back the original filibuster: the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” version that forces a dissenting member of the minority to stand in the Senate chamber and speak for long periods of time to sustain the filibuster. After they’re done talking, senators would then be able to pass a bill with a simple majority instead of the current 60-vote threshold required for most bills to pass.
Members have suggested this idea as a way to make the filibuster more difficult to use. It would also force filibustering senators to publicly defend their position — sometimes over multiple days — instead of filing their objections quietly with the Majority Leader’s office.
Another idea being floated would end filibusters only for legislation on voting rights. Smith said that she would support that idea as well, but that the Senate rules need to be reformed more broadly than just one piece of legislation.
“I believe that the Senate is broken,” Smith said. “I don’t think the Senate functions the way it was intended to function and it is not functioning well for the American people right now or for Minnesotans. And that’s because of the rules [involving the filibuster].”
Obstacles to filibuster changes
Manchin, a moderate Democrat who has frequently been at odds with his party on major pieces of legislation in the past year but whose support is critical to passing any legislation or changing rules around the filibuster, is a supporter of both the John Lewis Voting Rights bill and the Freedom to Vote Act. But so far he has not come out in support of the types of filibuster changes Schumer and other Democrats are proposing.
Manchin told reporters late Tuesday that he wants to keep the filibuster relatively the same as it is today, with potentially some modest changes. He said he would support eliminating the minority’s ability to filibuster the motion to proceed, which would, in theory, allow for more debate on legislation. (Filibustering the motion to proceed is a tactic that essentially blocks a bill from even making it to the floor for debate, which has been an issue for the Freedom to Vote Act.) This would mean the filibusters would still be possible during the debate of the bill itself, but at the very least a dissenting minority could not use the filibuster to stop a bill from getting to the Senate floor for debate.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Manchin’s fellow moderate Democrat, has also repeatedly voiced concerns about getting rid of the filibuster and its long-term ramifications if a Senate majority could have an unstoppable ability to push legislation through without being stopped by the dissenting minority.
Republicans have used the filibuster to block two election-related bills and a separate piece of legislation earlier this year that would have expanded and strengthened the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
So far Manchin has not publicly said whether or not he would vote with his party if Schumer forces a vote on filibuster rules.