By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
A lot of pundits seem baffled about why Democrats are forcing a Senate vote over the filibuster that seems certain to doom their cherished voting rights legislation. Party leaders rarely bring up bills unless they have the votes to pass them. But this one seems pretty obviously the correct move.
To backtrack a bit: Democrats have been trying to pass two democracy bills. One would restore the enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that have been stripped out by the Supreme Court, and the other is a hodgepodge of reforms intended to make voting easier, to prevent states from making voting more difficult, to reform money in politics, to safeguard vote counting and more. The two bills have been combined into one, and that legislation has passed the House of Representatives and is currently being considered by the Senate.
All 50 Senate Democrats appear to support both bills, with few if any Republicans joining them, which means that Democrats don’t have the 60 votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster. Most Senate Democrats, President Biden, and virtually all Democrats outside of the Senate (including some relatively moderate former Democratic senators) support changing Senate procedures so that core democracy bills would need only a simple majority to defeat a filibuster.
That reform could be imposed by a simple majority. However, at least two Democratic senators, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who support the democracy bill itself (the current version was negotiated by Manchin, who is its main sponsor), are not willing to change Senate procedures to insure that it will pass.
So why are Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democrats plowing ahead without reasonable hope of winning?
The most obvious reason is that the entire party wants them to. My guess is that at least 40 of the 50 Senate Democrats are eager to demonstrate their support for voting rights, in part because it is important to their strongest supporters and in part because they sincerely think it’s important.
Then there are Manchin and Sinema. Neither of them seems at all reticent in their support for the filibuster as it is currently practiced, or reluctant to vote to sustain it. Debating the bill, voting to support it against the current filibuster, and then voting with the Republicans against majority-imposed changes in procedures? That’s exactly what both of these senators seem happy to do.
Democrats who face tough re-election campaigns in 2022 such as Mark Kelly in Arizona, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Rafael Warnock in Georgia would probably prefer to vote only on popular measures that have broad bipartisan support in Congress. But neither filibuster reform nor the underlying voting rights legislation strike me as something they would be particularly worried about.
Republicans will presumably be running this fall on inflation, on big Democratic spending, on immigration, on cultural grievance and on the pandemic if it is still a problem. Add to that whatever nutty stuff emerges from Republican-aligned media and from former President Donald Trump. Opposition to voting rights might sell in Republican primaries, but it’s hard to believe it will be a major pitch to swing voters in November. And Senate procedure is not known for thrilling occasional voters and weak partisans. Sure, Republicans could potentially use it to excite their own strongest supporters, but there’s not exactly a shortage of topics that can do that.
Meanwhile, those marginal Democratic senators need things to light a fire under their own strongest supporters, especially if no major remaining portion of the party agenda passes this year. Voting rights and filibuster reform should help. It’s not just that: Many provisions of the voting bills (such as campaign finance reform) and Senate reform are the kinds of things that tend to appeal to good-government types, who are typically overrepresented on the editorial boards and in the newsrooms of many major news organizations. No, that’s not that big a deal, and those editorial boards are likely to support Democrats either way. Still, it can’t hurt, especially since some of the voters Democrats are pushing for (educated women, for example) might tend to be among the declining share of voters who follow the news through the mainstream media.
And of course there’s always the outside possibility that somehow Democrats can find some rules reform that Sinema and Manchin are willing to live with. That seems unlikely. But for Democrats who feel strongly about voting rights — and that’s a lot of them — the potential advantages of actually passing this bill surely far outweigh the drawbacks of wasting valuable Senate floor time on something that probably won’t pass.
All in all, what Schumer and the Democrats are doing doesn’t seem puzzling to me. Sinema’s behavior does, but given where she stands there’s no reason for Democrats to help her evade a vote that she appears perfectly happy to take. Sometimes there are worse things than losing a vote.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.