Democrats Plan to Fast-Track Voting Rights Bill, Speeding a Showdown

WASHINGTON — Moving quickly to force a showdown over voting rights, congressional Democrats plan to pursue a procedural shortcut to bring up stalled legislation and try to win its approval over deep Republican resistance.

In a memo to Senate Democrats on Wednesday, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, laid out a new strategy intended to overcome at least one procedural obstacle erected by Republicans to prevent the Senate from even considering the legislation.

Under the plan, the House would package two major pieces of voting rights legislation being pushed by Democrats — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — insert them into an unrelated bill and pass it. That measure would then go to the Senate as what is known as a “message,” meaning Republicans could not filibuster a move to bring it to the floor for debate and Democrats would not need to muster 60 votes to do so.

“Taking advantage of this existing exception to the Senate’s supermajority requirements will allow us to end the Republicans’ ability to block debate on voting rights legislation,” Mr. Schumer wrote in the memo. “The Senate will finally debate voting rights legislation, and then every senator will be faced with a choice of whether or not to pass the legislation to protect our democracy.”

Republicans have blocked four previous attempts to bring up voting rights legislation in the Senate, using the filibuster each time and leaving Democrats, who lack the 60 votes needed to get past the tactic, grasping for a way to even debate what they call vital measures to preserve democracy.

Even under the expedited process, the legislation could still face another filibuster when Democrats try to close off debate and bring it to a final vote, and Republicans have given every indication that they would try to block it.

If they do, Democrats have said they are ready to try to change Senate rules, a move endorsed by President Biden, who is scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill on Thursday to confer with Democrats on their strategy.

It was unclear how quickly the House would act, but Mr. Schumer has set Monday, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, as a deadline.

“That’s the plan,” said Senator Raphael Warnock, Democrat of Georgia and a leading proponent of the legislation that he and others say is needed to counter new voting restrictions being imposed by Republican-led legislatures in the South and elsewhere.

The House has previously approved both of the measures in separate votes but will still have to go through the mechanics of doing so again to set up the Senate debate, making the timing of the Senate action somewhat uncertain.

One of them contains an array of proposals to establish nationwide standards for ballot access, aiming to nullify the wave of new restrictions in Republican-led states. It would require that states allow at minimum 15 consecutive days of early voting and that all voters can request to vote by mail, establish new automatic voter registration programs and make Election Day a national holiday.

The other one, named for Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon and former congressman who died in 2020, would restore parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings. Among them was one mandating that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination win prior approval — or “preclearance” — from the Justice Department or federal courts in Washington before changing their voting rules.

The new plan to advance both measures came as Democrats stepped up their efforts to persuade holdouts to join them in forcing through a change in Senate rules, but so far they have reported no success in converting them.

Mr. Biden’s speech on Tuesday in Atlanta, in which he compared opponents of the legislation to notorious Southern racists of the Jim Crow era and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, drew a stinging rebuke on Wednesday from Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader.

“I’ve known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years,” said Mr. McConnell, who said the president had reneged on his inaugural vow to try to unite the country. “I did not recognize the man at the podium yesterday.”

Understand the Battle Over U.S. Voting Rights

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Why are voting rights an issue now? In 2020, as a result of the pandemic, millions embraced voting early in person or by mail, especially among Democrats. Spurred on by Donald Trump’s false claims about mail ballots in hopes of overturning the election, the G.O.P. has pursued a host of new voting restrictions.

What are Republicans trying to do? Broadly, the party is taking a two-pronged approach: imposing additional restrictions on voting (especially mail voting), and giving G.O.P.-controlled state legislatures greater control over the mechanics of casting and counting ballots.

Why are these legislative efforts important? They have fueled widespread doubts about the integrity of U.S. elections, brought intense partisan gamesmanship to parts of the democratic process and are likely to affect voters of color disproportionately.

How are Democrats pushing back? In Congress, Democrats have focused their efforts on two sweeping bills that protect access to voting and clarify how to count electoral votes, but Republicans in the 50-50 Senate have blocked both. President Biden endorsed changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to pass the legislation.

Which states have changed their voting laws? Nineteen states passed 34 laws restricting voting in 2021. Some of the most significant legislation was enacted in battleground states like Texas, Georgia and Florida. Republican lawmakers are planning a new wave of election laws in 2022.

Will these new laws swing elections? Maybe. Maybe not. Some laws will make voting more difficult for certain groups, cause confusion or create longer wait times at polling places. But the new restrictions could backfire on Republicans, especially in rural areas that once preferred to vote by mail.

The partisan tension over the measure has been growing as Democrats have intensified their efforts to reach a floor showdown over legislation that Republicans portray as a power grab. Mr. McConnell’s comments were particularly tough given his extensive past working relationship with the president.

“Twelve months ago this president said disagreement must not lead to disunion,” said Mr. McConnell. “But yesterday he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War — the Civil War — to demonize Americans who disagree with them. He compared — listen to this — a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors. How profoundly, profoundly unpresidential.”

Democrats said they welcomed the maneuver by Mr. Schumer, saying it would take the voting rights debate out of the theoretical by putting the bills themselves before the Senate, which until now had engaged only in preliminary procedural skirmishes.

“It is always better to be on the bill,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

But Democrats also wondered what their strategy would be for bringing the legislation to a final vote, given that Republicans are all but certain to oppose doing so, leaving them well short of the 60 votes needed to shut off debate. Many Democrats are calling for the party to use its bare majority to impose a rules change reducing that threshold to a simple majority.

But while they support the legislation, at least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, have said they would not join such an effort. That leaves the party short of the 50 votes required and without a mechanism to send the measures to the president for his signature.

Mr. Biden and his fellow Democrats have in recent days intensified their efforts to convince the pair that a rules change is the only way to stop Republicans at the state level from rewriting voting laws to put Democrats at a disadvantage by making it harder for people, particular minorities, to vote.

Besides Mr. Biden’s scheduled trip to the Capitol on Thursday to personally plead the case at a closed party gathering, White House officials said the president was also reaching out to senators by telephone. In an appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday, Mr. Schumer said senators were engaged in constant discussions with their two Democratic colleagues to try to convince them of the need to act and get them to set aside their reservations.

“They are saying things like, ‘I’ll lose my election if the legislature is allowed to do this in my state,’” Mr. Schumer said. “We’ll lose our majority, but more importantly, we’ll lose our democracy.”

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