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Schumer eyes final reckoning over voting rights and filibuster rule

Key votes are expected on the Senate floor in the next few days.

WASHINGTON — For voting rights legislation, a major showdown is drawing near.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told Democratic colleagues in a letter Wednesday that he will force a procedural vote on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

To make that happen, he will use a quirk in the rules to allow floor debate on the bills, both of which have majority support in the 50-50 Senate. But advancing the measures to votes on final passage requires 60 senators to break filibusters, which Democrats have no realistic hope of achieving because of Republican opposition.

Once the bills are filibustered, "we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before," Schumer said in the letter, which was obtained by NBC News.

But Democrats don't have the 50 votes they need to pierce the filibuster rule using the so-called nuclear option. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remain reluctant to change the rules, and there is scant evidence that they are likely to budge.

Still, Democratic leaders are focusing their rhetoric on Republicans.

"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 said in Wednesday's letter. "In the coming days, we will most likely confront this sobering question — together."

The Freedom to Vote Act has no Republican support in the Senate. The John Lewis bill has one GOP backer: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Schumer spoke out a day after President Joe Biden gave a fiery speech calling for changing the filibuster rule, if necessary, to pass the two election overhaul bills and overcome former President Donald Trump's "big lie" about a stolen 2020 election, which has fueled voting restrictions at the state level.

"As an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote. Let the majority prevail," Biden said. "And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who fiercely opposes the two bills, has said states should be able to set their own election rules. Unlike Democrats, he has said there is no problem with the voting limits that are being enacted in numerous Republican-led states.

McConnell said Biden's speech featured "rhetoric unbecoming of a president of the United States."

'A critical issue of our time'

Manchin said Wednesday that Biden gave a "good speech," but he offered no indication that he has changed his mind about the filibuster. "We're all still talking," he said. "He understands — we all understand how the Senate works."

Sinema's office declined to comment.

The positions of both will become clear in the next few days. Schumer has said he wants to hold the votes no later than Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Schumer's strategy to force the votes rests on a little-used congressional procedure in which the House can send a bill to the Senate in a way that allows Democrats to bypass one of two 60-vote filibuster votes that most legislation is subject to in the upper chamber.

The House kicked off that process Wednesday evening with a meeting in the Rules Committee to send the legislative vehicle to the Senate.

Once the House sends the bill across the Capitol, Senate Democrats will be able to start debate on the voting rights bills with a simple majority, which Republicans have blocked them from doing in the past.

"We will finally be able to get on the bill," Sen Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters. "What happens next is still TBD, but the Republicans cannot filibuster us getting on the bill anymore."

Republicans are guaranteed to filibuster an end to floor debate, which would prevent a final vote on the legislation.

"I’m just trying to figure out if he wants to lose once or twice," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of Schumer's gambit. "But I think we know what the outcome is going to be."

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., acknowledged the challenges for Democrats.

"There's a growing consensus among Democrats and Republicans on the need for rules changes. It's difficult to do during a debate on one bill," he said.

Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, hasn't given up on winning.

"I think everybody realizes that this is a critical issue of our time," she said. "It is important that we find a way to make sure that when history is on our shoulders right now, we have a way to move forward. I don't think we can prejudge the outcome of this at all."