Update 539 — Senate Vote on S. 1 Motion
Raises Specter at Last of Filibuster Reform
Performing an emergency procedure with S. 1, the For the People Act, on life support, Majority Leader Charles Schumer got every Democratic Senator on board to proceed to a vote on the bill. Every GOP Senator opposed the motion to proceed, setting up an even more dramatic confrontation regarding how the United States Senate does business going forward.
With Senate Republicans promising to filibuster at every turn, Sen. Manchin’s Aye vote means there is Democratic caucus unity on S. 1 and therefore a basis to consider reforming the roadblock for S. 1 and innumerable other bills passed by the House. In the coming days and weeks, the future of the filibuster will be front and center. Our tracker on each Democratic Senator’s stance on filibuster reform is here.
Today, we analyze the Senate vote on the motion to proceed to S. 1, the road ahead for the bill, and the implications for Senate procedure.
In January of 2019, Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes introduced H.R. 1, the For the People Act. Yesterday, after passing the House in 2019 and 2021, the legislation saw its first action on the Senate floor. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer brought a motion to proceed to a vote on S. 1, the Senate version of the For the People Act. The result was a party-line 50-50 tie.
What Now for S. 1?
While the motion to proceed was not expected to pass, Democrats showed unity. As was the case for the American Rescue Plan, Senator Manchin agonized publicly about his vote. Ultimately, he voted in favor of opening up debate in exchange for a vote on his amendments to the legislation, had the motion succeeded.
Manchin’s yes vote suggests he is on board with democracy reform. His list of proposed reforms are now serving as the initial framework for what the final package could look like. The vote may also carry implications for filibuster reform and Manchin’s changing attitude on it. If Republicans refuse to open debate on voting rights, campaign finance reform, and election administration, Manchin may finally realize the aimless nature of bipartisanship in this case.
Manchin’s support now brings the Democratic caucus into negotiations on a revised final package. In a scenario where Democrats find a way around or through the filibuster, Manchin’s final vote will be just as crucial as his vote to proceed to debate. Much of the Biden administration’s agenda and the fate of dozens of House-passed bills are in the balance.
Throughout the process, Democrats have been open to amendments on the bill and have allowed changes. Some moderate Democrats in the House secured alterations to the funding mechanism for publicly-funded elections, and in the Senate, Senator Klobuchar offered changes in response to feedback from local and state officials across both parties. Senate Democrats acknowledged Manchin’s list as a positive step forward. Now that the procedural vote has failed, the real work begins.
Reform Deal with Manchin
In a recent memo, Manchin loosely outlined his priorities to inform upcoming negotiations and updated legislation. His proposal leaves out some critical pieces of S. 1 and omits several provisions that democracy reform advocates see as critical. We lay out the pros and cons of Manchin’s proposal in our view below:
- Expanding ballot access: Manchin’s proposal would make Election Day a public holiday, mandate 15 days of early voting, promote automatic registration, and expand voting by mail.
- Ban on Partisan Gerrymandering: Manchin clarified his opposition to partisan redistricting and recommends using computer models to draw fair districts.
- Campaign finance reform: The DISCLOSE Act, Honest Ads Act, and other donation reporting requirements are included in Manchin’s memo.
- Small Donor Matching Program: Sen. Manchin’s proposal does not include a small donor matching program — the most transformative aspect of S. 1’s campaign finance provisions. The crown jewel of the campaign finance reform title of the bill, the program has been operational in dozens of jurisdictions over several decades with great results.
- FEC Reform: Manchin’s memo does not include provisions to reform the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an agency that has been rendered dysfunctional because of partisan gridlock.
- Voter ID: Manchin advocates for national voter proof of identification (ID) laws. While such laws often pose the risk of reducing voter turnout, it’s unclear what Manchin’s specific voter ID requirements would be.
- H.R. 4/Preclearance: While preclearance is not a part of the For the People Act, Manchin suggests significantly reducing the authority of the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice when preclearing state election laws for discrimination, putting such decisions up for additional judicial review. Such a reduction in federal oversight will take on even more relevance when H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is taken up by the Senate.
While Manchin’s proposal limits the scope of the For the People Act, President Biden, Congressional Democrats, and other key figures received it with optimism. Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams voiced support for the compromise, arguing that it is a step in the right direction. But as the negotiations continue, Sen. Schumer must fight for aspects of S. 1 at risk of being left out.
The small donor matching program within Title V is of primary importance. Matching contribution funds is a necessary provision of the bill, as it would shift political power in Washington towards the average voter. This provision must be prioritized by Sen. Schumer in current negotiations. With dark money flowing through our political system, FEC reform is another key bargaining chip. The FEC has been reduced to a toothless watchdog agency as partisan gridlock prevents the agency from taking almost any actions towards regulating elections. Saving these key provisions and working to make the compromise legislation as strong as possible should be atop Senate Democrats’ agendas moving forward.
Process Considerations and Outcomes
While the timing of the next vote on voting rights legislation remains up in the air, it will be important for Democrats to decide on their direction soon. Once the caucus can agree on a concrete deal, Democrats will need to draft new legislation covering any proposed changes. Schumer may also face roadblocks getting progressives in the House and Senate to accept political reality and support a watered-down bill.
Beyond intra-caucus debates — not to mention the effort to engage GOP members — there are other factors that will underscore the urgency of passing democracy reform. As several states approach deadlines for Congressional reapportionment, it’s critical that the proposed ban on partisan gerrymandering remains in the bill and becomes law by the fall. Another issue of timing is the continued effort by state legislatures to pass laws restricting ballot access. Passing any voting legislation within the range of current negotiations would directly combat such efforts.
Regardless of what happens among Democrats, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already come out against Manchin’s proposed amendments and will likely lead his caucus in opposition to any national voting rights legislation. For now, Manchin will push Democrats to find solutions he thinks may reach the 60-vote threshold for passage in the Senate. But all indications suggest that goal is unattainable.
As Senate Democrats focus on getting 50 votes behind a bill, the elephant in the room is — and will continue to be — the filibuster rule. Despite Sens. Manchin and Sinema currently opposed to abolishing the filibuster wholesale, they have ample opportunity to consider some version of procedural reform if they’re truly keen on seeing this and other legislation passed.