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Schumer tries to jump-start Dems with rules change threat

Chuck Schumer is attempting a filibuster Hail Mary as Democrats’ agenda on both elections reform and President Joe Biden’s economic plans remains stalled at the beginning of a critical midterm election year.

The Senate majority leader warned Monday that the Senate will debate and vote on changes to the chamber’s rules by January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, unless Republicans get out of the way on elections reform. His threat seems inevitable, since Republicans are almost certain to block Democrats’ next attempt to bring up their priority legislation.

“The Senate must evolve, like it has many times before,” Schumer wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent Monday. “The Senate was designed to evolve and has evolved many times in our history. … The fight for the ballot is as old as the Republic.”

Schumer’s Dear Colleague focused almost entirely on elections legislation, which has the support of all 50 Senate Democrats but has been repeatedly filibustered by Republicans. He left unsaid just when and how the Senate would turn to Biden’s social and climate-focused legislation, so far rejected by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Schumer told his caucus in December he would eventually bring the bill to the floor this year, despite Manchin’s opposition to the latest proposal.

Now, Democrats’ expanded child tax credit has expired and voters will begin hitting the primary polls within weeks, creating increased pressure on Senate Democrats to somehow move the party’s stalled agenda forward on voting and expanding the social safety net. Democrats insisted they weren’t moving onto voting rights at the expense of the education, climate, health care, child care and climate-focused bill.

“I don’t think we’re pivoting away. In fact, we met by recess over phone and we’re lining up a vote on that,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a member of Schumer’s leadership team. Asked if the party might have to drop the child tax credit portion of the bill to satisfy Manchin, she answered: “I think everything’s still on the table.”

A snowstorm derailed Monday’s Senate session, so Schumer will hold a leadership meeting with his members on Tuesday. In his Monday letter, he set a tight two-week turnaround for his party to try and muscle through a change to the Senate rules that would allow elections reform legislation to pass the chamber with a simple majority vote. Plus, Schumer has to round up all 50 votes in his own caucus to pass a rules change, paving the way for legislation to discourage gerrymandering or beef up portions of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court years ago.

For months, Senate Democrats tried to find a path forward on elections reform and voting rights legislation, arguing that doing so is necessary to ensure ballot access in GOP-led states that have enacted stricter elections laws. Senate Republicans, however, are unanimously opposed to the elections reform bill, describing it as nothing more than an attempt by the federal government to take over state-run elections.

Progressives have long argued that Democrats need to nix the legislative filibuster in order to pass the elections bill, and lately some centrist senators like Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) have joined them in endorsing filibuster changes. But while Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) support the legislation, both have vowed that they will not scrap the chamber’s 60-vote threshold.

Manchin has historically opposed using the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules by a simple majority vote. Instead, he’s insisted that any changes to the rules should be bipartisan. The vast majority of his party now disagrees, saying the filibuster has to be amended on party lines to push through voting legislation.

“I’ve voted more times to change the filibuster rule than any senator in the Senate, beginning in 1975,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday. “We shouldn’t be afraid to vote. Don’t hide behind the filibuster or anything else. Vote up or down. If you want to vote against voting rights, then stay on the floor and vote against it.”

Republicans denounced Schumer’s words, with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) declaring that “an evenly divided Senate breaking and forever changing rules that require a supermajority is like a football team declaring its opponent’s endzone starts at the 40 yard-line.”

In Monday’s letter, Schumer invoked the upcoming one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, describing it as a “symptom of a broader illness — an effort to delegitimize our election process.”

“The Senate must advance systemic democracy reforms to repair our republic or else the events of that day will not be an aberration — they will be the new norm,” Schumer wrote. “We as Senate Democrats must urge the public in a variety of different ways to impress upon their Senators the importance of acting and reforming the Senate rules, if that becomes a [prerequisite] for action to save our democracy.”

The imminent push to pass elections reform legislation will bring the debate over Senate rules to a head, even as the path forward remains unclear. A small group of Senate Democrats have met quietly with Manchin to gauge his openness to changing Senate rules. Those meetings are expected to continue this week.

While an outright elimination is off the table, Democrats are trying to see whether Manchin and Sinema are open to other proposals. Among the possibilities: Bringing back the talking filibuster, forcing the minority to repeatedly put up 41 votes to block bills or eliminating the ability to filibuster a bill from even being debated on the Senate floor.

Prior to leaving for a two-week recess in December, Democrats held several caucus discussions on changing the Senate rules. Those conversations will now accelerate, though this week will be shortened by Monday’s snowstorm and former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) memorial service on Thursday afternoon.

That sets up next week as pivotal to meet Schumer’s MLK Day deadline.

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