Democrats are six months into their control of Congress and the White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is queuing up floor votes that will all almost certainly fail—and that’s sort of the point.
Equal pay. Voting rights. Perhaps even gun control and LGBTQ rights. Ever since Democrats took unified control of Washington in January, these long-awaited Democratic priorities have been on a slow-motion collision course with a legislative reality: the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold for passing bills that continues to ensure minority rule over what makes it to President Joe Biden’s desk.
After a busy beginning to the year—during which Democrats passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, confirmed Biden’s cabinet, and wrote into law a bipartisan hate crimes measure—liberal lawmakers are finally bracing for impact. With the Senate split 50-50, the longstanding filibuster has become the brick wall standing between Democrats and their top goals.
The next month, then, could be the toughest stretch yet for Democrats. In a letter to senators last week, Schumer said as much, forecasting an “extremely challenging” June that will “test our resolve.”
Schumer seems to be setting up his party for failure for a couple of reasons. Many Democrats believe—or, at least, hope—he is trying to force a gut check for some individual members, like centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Demonstrating to Manchin that Democrats can’t succeed while the filibuster persists could produce some momentum toward ending the 60-vote threshold. And, at the very least, Schumer could be giving Democrats a political cudgel to beat Republicans in 2022 and beyond.
Call it The Month of Taking the L—in hopes that those losses eventually turn into wins. Democrats have little choice but to trust the process, even if some big dominoes have to fall in the right direction quickly.
“If any of these lead to the reform or elimination of the filibuster,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) told The Daily Beast, “my response is, bring it on.”
Some progressive lawmakers are anxiously welcoming the succession of votes on dead-on-arrival bills as a wake-up call to filibuster holdouts.
“With each vote on lifesaving common-sense legislation that gets shot down because of the filibuster,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), “the American people and the senators themselves who are still holding out hope that filibuster reform is unnecessary will see that it is.”
Meanwhile, liberal activists who have been working over Congress on the filibuster for years sense their best opportunity yet to push the envelope—particularly in the wake of the GOP’s filibuster of a bipartisan push to create an independent commission on the Jan. 6 attack.
“It’s a really, really important step,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the group Indivisible. “Because fundamentally, we need to elevate the understanding of exactly how serious the Republican obstructionism is right now. We need to dramatize it.”
Even if some Democrats can see a filibuster endgame developing, in the short term, there are difficult steps that will require the party to grapple fully with internal differences, not just wail on Republicans. After all, some of the most important bills for Democrats lack 50 votes in the Senate.
Their ability to handle all of this successfully, say lawmakers and advocates, will determine whether they keep the promises they believed they were elected to fulfill—and whether they will keep power after the 2022 midterms.
“This is the moment for all the Democratic senators who have said for years that they want to get stuff done to show that they mean it,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee advocacy group.
Of the bills set for a Senate vote this month, none are more central to Democrats than S.1., dubbed the For The People Act. That bill mandates that states adopt policies that make it easier for people to vote, and it institutes restrictions on campaign finance and partisan gerrymandering.
In the wake of an onslaught of GOP-backed bills on the state level aimed at curtailing avenues to the ballot box, some Democrats openly say they will never win another election unless they pass national legislation ensuring voting access.
Republicans have mounted all-out opposition to S.1, with GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) casting it in apocalyptic terms. But the legislation’s more immediate obstacle right now is Manchin, who said he cannot support it in its current form and wants it to be bipartisan. Democrats understand their push to eliminate the filibuster is weaker if they cannot muster a simple majority to pass a key bill.
By putting S.1 on the floor, some Democrats hope that the alchemy of the legislative process will ultimately bring Manchin on board with the bill and then convince him, along with others, that Republicans can’t be negotiated or reasoned with.
“We are pleased to see [Schumer] trying to move this forward, because we recognize that in order to pass key bills that depend on overcoming the filibuster, you’re going to have to have this conversation first,” Greenberg said.
The Democratic leader, who has simply said that “everything is on the table” with respect to the filibuster, has not explicitly connected the dots of this strategy. But he has hinted at his logic in drawing up this summer’s floor schedule. In April, he told Ezra Klein in an interview that he would put S.1 on the floor and see “if any Republicans are willing to engage in constructive changes, not just to destroy it, but to make constructive change.”
“If they don’t, our caucus will have to come together,” Schumer said. “And the caucus is an amazing thing.”
S.1 is not the only bill up for consideration this month that will test the caucus’ ability to come together. The sweeping LGBTQ rights bill, the Equality Act, doesn’t yet have Manchin’s support either. Schumer said in his Friday letter that “gun safety” bills may get a vote in June, too. If they’re the ones the Democratic-led House passed in March, they also don’t have Manchin’s support.
Perhaps the easiest item for Democrats in an otherwise thorny month is the Paycheck Fairness Act, aimed at narrowing the gender pay gap, which Schumer indicated will definitely get a vote and is supported by all 50 Democrats.
Skeptics have a hard time seeing how Manchin—who was distraught over the GOP blocking the Jan. 6 commission but still unmoved on the filibuster—would finally budge after the failure of a few bills that he didn’t really support in the first place. “This cynical ploy from Chuck Schumer likely won’t move Senator Manchin one inch. It’s a giant waste of time,” a senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast.
Versions of these bills either died in the GOP-run Senate or had been filibustered the last time Democrats were in charge. It will be painful for many Democrats to see them blocked again, especially with control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. And it’s hard not for Democrats to be frustrated at the obstacles, both in the GOP and in their own ranks.
“How many times do you need to see this happen before we realize Republicans don’t have genuine interest in working on a bipartisan basis?” asked Padilla. “How many times does [Manchin] need to see it? One, two, three times?”
But the bills’ failure, argued Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA), will show the public the tangible impact of the filibuster.
“What does it mean for them when we’re talking about Senate procedure and parliamentary rules? These aren’t just arcane rules,” said Clark, the number four House Democrat. “They’re being used to block solutions the American people want.”
In the background of this summer of partisan warfare and internal haggling, key players are still trying to strike bipartisan deals—including Biden himself.
The president is continuing to negotiate with Senate Republicans on a big-ticket infrastructure package, and he’s urged a bipartisan group of lawmakers to bring him police reform legislation to sign.
Even still, Biden has used his perch to urge his party to do what is necessary to enact their agenda, especially S.1. “June should be a month of action on Capitol Hill,” Biden said during an event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday. In an eyebrow-raising move, Biden invoked "two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends,” presumably a nod to Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
Some Democrats were pleasantly surprised to see the shade fly. Jones said he saw a president “at long last beginning to use his bully pulpit” to bring Democrats “into line.” And that intervention from Biden reflected what’s long been clear from the party’s rank-and-file: an existential urgency to pass voting legislation.
“On voting rights in general, the timing of S.1, it’s got to be done on a timeframe that makes it meaningful for the 2022 election cycle,” said Padilla. “Time is not our friend.”
“It’s pretty special that we’re in a time when we have a unique opportunity,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY). “But we may never have another opportunity.”
There’s an extremely bullish belief among progressives that by calling up S.1 this month, Senate Democrats are putting into motion a process that could result in the passage of the legislation—and the death of the filibuster—by Labor Day.
“Schumer knows that sometimes you have to call the question, and timing matters in Washington,” said Green. “Working this out in June, versus July, is a really smart strategy.”
Lawmakers like Clark see it somewhat differently. “This is one of those situations that, when it changes, it’s going to change fast, and I think we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” she said of the filibuster.
“What I think is encouraging and is important is that the majority leader is scheduling these votes. This is the critical time to show this is not for lack of trying to build bipartisan consensus,” Clark continued. “There is nobody on either side of the aisle who doesn't think that’s a better way to legislate. But that's simply not where we are.”