Senate Returns to Deal With Biden’s Stalled Agenda
The president’s domestic policy ambitions hang in the balance, but little legislative action is expected ahead of the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot.,
The top Senate Democrat said he would act by Jan. 17 to try to force through the measures if Republicans refused to drop their opposition.
WASHINGTON — Democrats plan to intensify their push to enact new voting rights protections in the coming days, hoping to persuade holdouts in their ranks to embrace fundamental changes to Senate rules that would allow them to force through the stalled measures over Republican opposition.
In a letter to his colleagues on Monday, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, pointed to two emotionally charged observances this month to make his case that action on the issue could not wait.
He argued that the approaching first anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by rioters seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election reinforced the need for new legislation to offset voting restrictions being imposed by Republicans in states around the country. And Mr. Schumer said that Democrats would give Republicans until the Jan. 17 observance of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to drop their opposition to debate and votes on the issue, or face the prospect of overhauling Senate filibuster rules that allow the minority to thwart legislation that has majority support.
“Make no mistake about it,” Mr. Schumer wrote, “this week Senate Democrats will make clear that what happened on Jan. 6 and the one-sided, partisan actions being taken by Republican-led state legislatures across the country are directly linked, and we can and must take strong action to stop this antidemocratic march.”
The message appeared aimed as much at a pair of key Democrats as at Republicans, who have shown no willingness to allow the bills to advance. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have resisted any attempt to muscle through a rules change, leaving Democrats short of the minimum 50 votes that would be required in the evenly divided Senate.
Mr. Schumer and a handful of more moderate Democrats have been meeting with the two to make the case for changes that would allow the election measures to advance without an outright abolition of the filibuster, which can only be overcome with 60 votes.
The focus on voting rights came as the Senate returned for the new year to confront President Biden’s stalled agenda, and as Democrats are also struggling to advance their marquee climate, tax and spending measure. The $2.2 trillion measure ran into a significant obstacle over the holidays when Mr. Manchin said he would not support it. His pronouncement denied Democrats the 50 votes needed to pass the legislation under special budget rules, leaving leaders groping for a way forward.
Little legislative action is expected this week, given the Jan. 6 anniversary and memorial services for former Senators Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Harry Reid of Nevada, the former majority leader.
Only the Senate is scheduled to be in session this week, and Monday’s return was delayed by a winter storm that blanketed Washington with more than 8 inches of snow. Many senators are likely to spend Thursday attending a memorial service for Mr. Isakson in Atlanta. A service for Mr. Reid is planned for Saturday in Las Vegas before he lies in state in the Capitol next Wednesday.
After withholding his views on prospective changes in Senate rules for much of last year, Mr. Schumer has made it clear that he will pursue an overhaul if Republicans continue to filibuster two voting rights measures that he has sought to bring to the Senate floor.
One, the Freedom to Vote Act, would set new minimum standards for early and mail-in voting, among other provisions. The second, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, seeks to restore major elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings.
“We hope our Republican colleagues change course and work with us,” Mr. Schumer’s letter said. “But if they do not, the Senate will debate and consider changes to Senate rules on or before Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to protect the foundation of our democracy: free and fair elections.”
A coalition of progressive groups has already announced plans for major demonstrations in support of voting rights changes tied to the King birthday holiday in Arizona and Washington, D.C.
Key Figures in the Jan. 6 Inquiry
Democrats pressing to change the rules to enable the legislation to move have reported some progress, but both Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin have publicly stuck to their refusal to embrace the move. Mr. Manchin has shown some fresh willingness to entertain more modest revisions.
Republicans are counting on the two holding firm. They argue that Democrats are trying to gain partisan advantage with the voting rights legislation, by seeking to impose rules on states that have long been responsible for regulating their own elections.
“They want to nationalize elections,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, said in a recent interview. “They are so intent on getting their way that they will break the rules to get there.”
Trying to make his case for a rules change, Mr. Schumer said the Senate’s traditional reverence for the rights of the minority party have “been warped and contorted to obstruct and embarrass the will of majority — something our founders explicitly opposed.”
As a result, he said, the “weaponization of rules once meant to short-circuit obstruction have been hijacked to guarantee obstruction.”
Among the rules changes being discussed privately by Democrats is one that would clear the way for a final vote on legislation after opponents had been allowed to change it substantially or kill it through amendments. Top Democrats conceded they may not succeed in winning any changes, but said they had no choice but to forge ahead and at least force lawmakers to officially record their positions.
The safety net and climate change legislation being pursued by Democrats is protected from a filibuster because it is being considered under a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation that would allow it to pass with only Democratic votes. Lacking Mr. Manchin’s support for the measure as written, Democrats now need to dramatically whittle it down to address his concerns about its fiscal impact if they have any hope of winning his vote.