WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats, eager to salvage a victory as they lose hope of finishing the Build Back Better Act before Christmas, have turned their attention to voting rights legislation.
Still, two key obstacles remain: Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
And it's not clear Democrats have a path to win over their two colleagues to force a vote on the bill, despite significant shifts from other moderates and a frustrated voting base clamoring loudly for Congress to act.
Long-simmering frustrations among prominent Black leaders appeared to be boiling over as they pressure President Joe Biden to do more to encourage the Senate to act. Progressive advocacy groups have revved up their pressure campaigns, fearing that time is running out to avert what they see as an existential threat to democracy. Leaders of the effort in the Senate, notably Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, have held meetings with colleagues to find a path forward.
And moderates like Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, said this week they're ready to change the Senate rules to allow a vote on an election overhaul. But despite this movement, it may not be enough.
Manchin and Sinema are supportive of the Freedom to Vote Act, which would enshrine a series of voting-access guarantees across all states, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would impose additional limits on states with a history of discrimination. But neither supports a rule change to get around the 60-vote threshold that is blocking votes on those bills.
Manchin, who spoke to Warnock about the issue and left the Capitol shoulder-to-shoulder with him this week, told reporters he wants support from both parties before establishing new rules.
"All my discussions have been bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats. A rules change should be done to where we all have input in this rules change because we’re going to have to live with it," he said.
That's a problem: Republicans are extremely unlikely to sign off on any rule changes that would enable passage of voting rights legislation, which they staunchly oppose. A filibuster change through the regular process require a two-thirds vote, and even moderate Republicans say they're not interested.
"I don't see how. Unless Sen. (Chuck) Schumer tries to employ the nuclear option, rule changes require 67 votes," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told NBC News, referring to the Senate majority leader. "I think the rules and traditions of the Senate have generally served us well, and I don't see the need for rule changes."
Sinema said through a spokesperson that she still opposes weakening the 60-vote rule to pass a voting bill.
Sinema "continues to support the Senate's 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government," spokesman John LaBombard said in a statement.
"Senator Sinema has asked those who want to weaken or eliminate the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation which she supports if it would be good for our country to do so, only to see that legislation rescinded in a few years and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law, nationwide restrictions on vote-by-mail, or other voting restrictions currently passing in some states extended nationwide," he said.
On Thursday, Schumer, D-N.Y., called election safeguards a "critical and urgent priority," and said Democrats are having "detailed conversations about how the Senate will get voting rights done in time for the 2022 elections" — without promising action this year.
"This matter is too important not to act, even if it means we must act alone to get the Senate working," he said.
'A perfect storm'
President Joe Biden on Wednesday again urged the Senate to act on a voting bill after news outlets reported that his talks with Manchin on the Build Back Better legislation were going poorly.
"Get it done, they should do it. There's nothing more important, domestically, than voting rights," he said. "It's the single biggest thing."
Advocates and senators are trying to find a way. Voting and civil rights advocates say the Senate’s debt ceiling workaround, and their inability to wrap up Build Back Better this year, presented an opportunity they were eager to seize.
“It’s a perfect storm and a perfect opportunity to get something done,” said the Rev. Leah Daughtry, campaign manager of Fighting for Our Vote, a coalition of civil rights and labor organizations launched by the NAACP. “If you can do it for the debt ceiling, you can certainly do it for voting rights.”
Progressive activists have been fighting to build momentum behind federal voting legislation for a year, working overtime and organizing television ads and marches across the country.
Two left-leaning groups, End Citizens United/Let America Vote and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, vowed $30 million to support of federal voting legislation in March. To date, they've spent $37 million.
And as early as Thursday, the End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund is kicking off yet another ad buy: $800,000 in national digital and television ads likening the fight for voting rights to other pivotal moments in history, including storming the beaches in Normandy, the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and President Ronald Reagan's demand for the Berlin Wall to be torn down.
"For today’s generation of leaders, the call has come again," the ad says. "To protect our freedom to vote, to fortify our democracy."
State legislatures have helped advocates make their case, with 19 states passing 33 laws that make it harder to vote this year alone, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Some states made it harder to vote by mail, while others imposed criminal penalties on election administrators or others for errors or mistakes in the election process. A spate of states have rolled out partisan gerrymandered redistricting plans, drawing crazy-looking districts with clear partisan aims.
“As the stone keeps rolling down the hill, it keeps gathering more moss,” Daughtry said.
While some thought this fight would be over by now, advocates say they’re working to make it clear that every day matters as state legislators continue to redistrict and begin pre-filing legislation to impose new restrictions.
“We need to pass these bills now. Otherwise, they won’t be implemented for the 2022 election and millions of Americans — particularly Black and brown Americans — will see their voices silenced,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United/Let America Vote.
Advocates been watching Manchin for months, attempting to glean signs of movement in the comments he makes to reporters in the Senate halls. They bear no illusions that 10 Republicans will sign up to support the voting bills, so instead keep urging Democrats to take action alone.
The debt ceiling maneuver to suspend the filibuster, they say, gave them a model. But that can only be replicated if at least 10 Republican senators sign on to such an exception.
“I would like to believe that people are waking up to the fact that there are ways in which to achieve this,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.
“America needs a win,” Johnson told NBC News. “America needs to see Congress function.”