Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is leaning into a fight on changing the Senate’s legislative filibuster, as Democrats try to use the Jan. 6 attack anniversary to inject new momentum into their quest to change the chamber’s rules.
Supporters of changing the 60-vote hurdle required for most legislation to pass the Senate face hurdles because Democrats need total unity from their 50-member caucus. But Democrats are hoping that tying the voting rights discussions to the looming one-year mark of the Capitol attack will sway key holdouts.
Schumer, who is under heavy pressure from his own caucus and outside groups, is vowing to bring the rules change discussions to a head in a matter of weeks.
“Over the coming weeks, the Senate will once again consider how to perfect this union and confront the historic challenges facing our democracy. We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us. But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” Schumer wrote in a letter Monday to Senate Democrats.
Schumer’s decision to force a vote comes after months of behind-the-scenes discussions among Senate Democrats as they’ve tried to figure out a path forward, including weeks of intense talks in the lead up to lawmakers leaving town last month.
A Democratic leadership aide noted that the discussions within the caucus continued over the weeks-long holiday break. The group holding the talks, which includes Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine), tapped by Schumer to lead the rules talks, have been in discussion with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key holdout, and those talks are expected to continue this week, according to the aide.
Schumer has long left the door open to potentially changing the legislative filibuster, saying repeatedly that all options were “on the table” for getting voting rights legislation to Biden’s desk.
But Schumer’s latest letter set a new high watermark for how far and how explicitly he is willing to lean into calls to change the chamber’s rules. Schumer argued that the Senate’s rules had been “hijacked” by Republicans to “guarantee obstruction,” and invoked the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who Manchin frequently cites as a guidepost.
“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?” Schumer asked in the letter, adding that the “must adapt” and “must evolve.”
The pitch earned praise from Democrats, who have grown increasingly frustrated as they’ve watched the legislative filibuster stymie some of their biggest priorities.
“I was very encouraged by Chuck Schumer’s letter… and that the Senate had to, he used the word, evolve. Let’s hope that that evolution starts very soon,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told supporters during a Zoom call on Monday.
Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for pro-reform group Fix Our Senate, also praised Schumer, saying that he “made the choice clear: Senate Democrats must now choose between protecting our democracy or stubbornly preserving an outdated and abused Senate rule.”
Democrats are discussing a range of ideas. One option would get rid of the 60-vote hurdle needed to start debate on a bill paired with a deal on guaranteed amendment votes. But that plan would still leave the 60-vote threshold in place to end debate and move to a final bill, meaning that GOP support would still be needed to ultimately pass voting legislation.
Other ideas include creating a carve out for voting rights legislation that would exempt it from the filibuster while leaving it in place for other bills; moving to a talking filibuster that would let opponents block a bill from getting a simple majority vote for as long as they could hold the floor; or changing the threshold from 60 “yes” votes to break a filibuster to 41 “no” votes needed to sustain it.
It’s far from guaranteed that Democrats will be successful in convincing their own members. Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have withstood months of high-profile criticism and pressure campaigns to try to get them to cave on the filibuster with few signs of movement.
Sinema, through a spokesperson, reiterated late last month that she remains supportive of the 60-vote hurdle and is wary of creating a carve out that would exempt voting rights legislation.
Manchin, who represents a deep-red state, has been talking with Democrats and Republicans about how to dial down the Senate’s gridlock but hasn’t signed onto any specific changes. In a significant hurdle for Democrats, he’s said any rules changes should be bipartisan and has long opposed using the “nuclear option” to implement a change along party lines.
“If you can make the Senate work better, the rules are something we've changed over the years; 232 years, there's been rule changes. But there's never been a change with the filibuster, the rights of the minority,” Manchin said during a recent “Fox News Sunday” interview.
Republicans immediately hit back at Schumer’s pledge to force a vote, accusing him of trying to break the Senate in an effort to federalize elections. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) warned that if Schumer was successful it would turn the Senate into a “strictly majoritarian, Lord-of-the-Flies environment.”
But changing the legislative filibuster has growing support from different kinds of Democrats, underscoring how the idea has moved from the fringes into the mainstream of the party.
Democrats hope the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol as lawmakers counted Biden’s Electoral College win, might sway their own holdouts.
Schumer in his letter said the Jan. 6 attack was “directly linked” with the “partisan actions being taken by Republican-led state legislatures” on voting measures.
“Let me be clear: January 6th was a symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process, and the Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm,” he wrote.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Schumer’s No. 3, quickly echoed him, tweeting that if lawmakers “want our democracy to stay a democracy, we *must* protect the right to vote using every tool we have, including an exemption to the filibuster.”
Other Democratic senators are expected to pick up the thread as they return to Washington this week.
Progressive groups and election watchers warn that Democrats are quickly running out of time if they are going to implement voting legislation before the 2022 midterms.