Senate Dems face the ultimate test this week as Mitch McConnell stands firm
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

We get another peek on Tuesday at just what an upsidedown world the U.S. Senate represents with a test vote on voter rights legislation that is being washed twice, rinsed and hung out on a bipartisan clothesline just in time for Republicans to knock it down.

For weeks, we have watched Sen. Joe Manchin, (D-W.Va.) maneuver, delay, twist and turn to try to make the For the People Act appeal to a bipartisan coalition. Tomorrow, we will confirm two things:

  • Democrats will negotiate endlessly among themselves to present a bill they think should draw 10 Republican votes
  • the reality that the Republican minority will just slam the door

Without the 10 votes, Democrats will fall short of the 60 required, renewing the endless debate over changing the filibuster rules – which actually can be done with a simple majority. But centrists like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) say such action will carry bad consequences into the future.

Instead, they insist on turning every substantial Democratic proposal from coronavirus aid to infrastructure projects into mincemeat to lure would-be right-leaning centrists.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., simply says no. "I've taken a look at all the new state laws—none of them are designed to suppress the vote," McConnell said this week. "There is no rational basis for the federal government to take over all of American elections."

What tomorrow will show is that Democrats can at least hold the 50 votes of their own tiny majority in the hope that by banding together they can shift the public spotlight onto GOP opposition after weeks of headlines about their own divisions.

By bending over backward to accommodate Manchin, Democrats can at least avoid the embarrassment of not keeping their own party in check.

Of course, dealmaking by constant self-negotiation only serves the specific needs of the Senate world itself. It may or may not address actual problems in the real world where Republican-majority legislatures in state after state are passing at least two dozen laws to restrict voting. The largest effects are predicted in areas with large numbers of voters of color.

Amid the bipartisan appeal, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) continues to argue that "the Democratic Party is the only party standing up for democracy right now."

Manchin's Move

Until Manchin came out with his list of what he would support as a voting rights bill, the effort looked to be dead. Simply because Manchin's changes made some kind of progress possible, it quickly gained traction with progressive Democrats and activists, most notably Stacey Abrams, the voting rights champion in Georgia.

But as reporters are noting, the Manchin effort actually has done nothing to improve the chances that the legislation could get through the Senate's 60-vote requirement. Manchin and Sinema also oppose dumping the filibuster rules.

What's weird about the reactions in both parties is that Manchin has allowed for some specifics that Republicans say they want, including provisions allowing for voter ID requirements, and, of course, the Democrats want provisions to counter those new state laws that Manchin has dropped.

Basically, Manchin had publicly criticized the bill as overly broad and spent a session with fellow Democrats last week to outline specifics.

Manchin supports:

  • making Election Day a public holiday
  • mandating at least 15 consecutive days for early voting in federal elections
  • banning gerrymandering
  • making voter registration automatic through state departments of motor vehicles
  • tightening campaign finance requirements like requiring online and digital ads to disclose their sources, similar to TV and radio ads
  • enacting stricter ethics requirements for presidents and vice presidents
  • requiring campaigns and committees to report foreign contacts

He opposes public financing of campaigns and no-excuse absentee voting, and sees no problem in requiring voter ID requirements or alternatives like a utility bill to provide proof of identity.

Showing Unity

The vote on Tuesday is to advance the bill for consideration, not the actual vote. But it should be a marker on where all parties stand.

For Democrats, being able to show a unified from would cement Republicans as the opposition to guarantees for voting rights. That, in turn, will renew calls from progressives to end the filibuster rule.

Still pending is the somewhat easier so-called John Lewis voting rights bill that would renew the requirement for federal review of state election law changes to assure that they are not discriminatory. Still, as Talking Points Memo points out, Manchin's notes last week about this bill would largely undercut the point of the legislation.

"But Manchin's changes, almost all erring on the side of concern that the measure overreaches, would defang many of the tools the bill provides to identify discriminatory voting practices and force those localities to obtain preclearance," the website reported.

And, of course, we still have an array of pending challenges to the November 2020 election results in Arizona and other states that want to claim retroactive election fraud.

In recent weeks, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute. Restrictions vary by state but can include:

  • limiting the use of ballot drop boxes
  • adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots
  • doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.

Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including:

  • tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules
  • clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives
  • outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections

Sounds like it's time to vote.