Unkept promise on elections overhaul leaves Democrats scrambling

Bill’s demise exposes Schumer’s lack of backup plan

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s ability to keep his caucus together faces a test in light of the stalled elections overhaul, Zeller writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s ability to keep his caucus together faces a test in light of the stalled elections overhaul, Zeller writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 28, 2021 at 6:46am

ANALYSIS — Democrats always intended the bill to overhaul elections, campaign finance and ethics law that stalled last week in the Senate as a statement of principle with which to draw a contrast with Republicans. But the measure’s demise is, thus far, demonstrating more fissures in their own party.

It has divided progressives who believe democracy cannot survive without its enactment, a president in Joe Biden who hasn’t used his bully pulpit to promote it as much as they’d like, and moderate Democrats who don’t think it’s worth upending the Senate filibuster to overcome GOP opposition.

All year, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has joined progressives in warning of the threat to democracy posed by state GOP bills that would roll back methods used to ease voting during the pandemic and give state legislatures more control over election administration. He’s accused Republicans of targeting African American voters and compared the new laws to Jim Crow discrimination. And he’s said that “failure is not an option” when it comes to the Democrats’ elections bill.

Still, Schumer grew exasperated when asked at his weekly news conference on June 22 about what he planned to do after the expected Republican filibuster later that day. “We will have the vote, and then we will discuss our future. I’m not going to put the cart before the horse,”the New York Democrat said. “I am not going to discuss those now.”

The problem for Schumer is that progressives, in and out of Congress, believed him when he said Democrats had to pass the bill — which would set national standards for state elections, increase public financing of campaigns and tighten ethical standards for politicians — or Republicans would undermine democracy.

The only apparent way to enact the law over a Republican filibuster is to end the filibuster. With all 50 Republican senators voting no, even reducing the 60-vote requirement, as some have suggested by way of compromise, would not be enough.

From the start of the year, two Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they would not end it, and both senators this month restated their position in separate op-eds for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Washington Post.

If ending the filibuster isn’t going to happen, progressives are realizing that Schumer has no backup plan. They are critical of the GOP but are also directing fire at the Democrats they see standing in the way.

“It’s time for certain Democratic Senators to realize that there is no bipartisan deal to be made when it comes to saving our democracy,” tweeted frustrated freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York.

Activist groups are also targeting Manchin and Sinema for opprobrium. A day after the Senate cloture vote, the Poor People’s Campaign and MoveOn.org promoted a protest at the Hart Senate Office Building lumping Manchin in with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Neither Manchin nor McConnell has done a thing over the last eight years to fix the Voting Rights Act,” explained Poor People’s Campaign Co-chair William J. Barber II, referencing the Supreme Court’s decision to halt federal oversight of some state election rules under the 1965 law. (Manchin has called for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act as an alternative to pursuing the broader elections, campaign finance and ethics bill.)

In an indication that progressives know Sinema and Manchin aren’t the only Democrats standing in the way, the group Fix Our Senate is running ads in Rhode Island and Delaware urging the four Democratic senators who represent those states to end the filibuster.

In April, Biden called a new Georgia elections law that gave the legislature more control over election administration and restricted ballot drop boxes and provisional ballots “Jim Crow on steroids." 

He also urged Major League Baseball to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta, which it soon did. But progressives say he has not done enough to get the elections bill enacted. “We also need to see the President *publicly* putting as much time and energy into fixing our democracy as he puts into fixing our roads and bridges,” tweeted Ezra Levin of the group Indivisible.

Levin showed no sympathy for Sinema either, warning that her opposition to ending the filibuster would mean “she’ll be remembered as a wannabe Strom Thurmond,” the former segregationist and South Carolina senator who staged a lengthy filibuster of a 1957 civil rights bill.

Meanwhile, Republicans, for whom Democrats intended the elections bill to serve as political kryptonite, seem confident in their own messaging. They call the bill a “corrupt politicians act” that aims to usurp state authority and ensure Democrats a permanent majority. And they have scored some points. Democratic leaders, for example, backed off their opposition to state laws requiring voters to show identification after polls found the requirements popular and Manchin said he supported them.

The infighting on the left has caused some Democrats to wonder if the party’s decision to emphasize the elections bill to such a degree, knowing its chances of enactment were slim at best, was a wise one.

Politico reported that Dmitri Mehlhorn, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, had recently called Speaker Nancy Pelosi to warn that Democrats were wasting valuable time by making the bill a top priority while also sapping liberal donors’ enthusiasm at a time when the party needs to build a war chest for the 2022 midterm elections.

The weakening of Democratic unity could blow over as the party turns to Biden’s infrastructure, climate and welfare proposals. On Thursday, the president announced he’d agreed to a proposal by a bipartisan group of senators to spend an additional $579 billion on roads, bridges and other “hard infrastructure” items above current allocations. Schumer said he expected the Senate to move in July on the bipartisan infrastructure bill while also passing a budget resolution to pave the way for enactment of a larger, partisan spending law by year’s end.

But the fissures in the party could also undermine these efforts. Already progressives have insisted that they could only vote for a bipartisan bill to fund roads and bridges if it moved alongside the broader measure to combat climate change, fund child and elder care and make community college free. 

Schumer’s plan would only go part way to meeting that demand, as the budget resolution’s passage does not assure the larger bill will reach Biden’s desk intact or at all. The resolution is “not locked in stone,” Schumer acknowledged.