Stacey Abrams: Senate Dems should make an exception to the filibuster for the House's voting rights bill

This makes two Sundays in a row in which an unusually influential Democrat has told a national audience that the rules of the filibuster may need to change to facilitate passage of H.R. 1, the House’s massive election-reform package. Righties should start paying attention to the traction that idea is getting on the left, as we may be much closer to a death match in the Senate over the fate of the 60-vote rule than we all expected to be at this point.

Last week it was Joe “The Decider” Manchin, who didn’t rule it out when he was asked whether he’d consider using the simple-majority rules of budget reconciliation to pass H.R. 1. This week it’s Stacey Abrams, a politician who holds no office but has become one of the party’s most powerful figures thanks to Democrats’ recent success in her home state. Abrams’s turnout machine helped deliver Georgia to Joe Biden, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff in the span of two months, and voting rights happens to be the cause to which she’s devoted herself since losing the gubernatorial race three years ago. (Yes, sorry, Abrams fans. She really did lose.) Dems are counting on her to keep Georgia blue and to win the office in 2022 that eluded her in 2018. So when she has something to say about election-reform legislation, you bet they’re going to listen.

What she has to say about H.R. 1 is that it’s time to go nuclear. Not a full nuclear release in which the legislative filibuster is completely eliminated, rather a tactical nuclear strike in which a special exception to the usual 60-vote threshold is made for voting-rights legislation in the same way that it’s now made for presidential nominees. Protecting democracy is a fundamental value, she said elsewhere today. Legislation to advance fundamental values should require just 50 votes for passage in the Senate.

Does Joe Manchin agree? I’ve hunted around today for any comments he may have made about where he stands on H.R. 1 but he’s been cagey. It’s notable, though, that some of his colleagues who had previously held out have been drifting towards filibuster reform lately:

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada just became the latest Democratic senator to come out in support of reforming the 60-vote threshold on legislation. A member of the establishment wing of the party, Cortez Masto chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2020 election cycle.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota similarly endorsed reforming or eliminating the filibuster in the past week, adding to the momentum…

Democrats could create a filibuster carve-out for voting and civil rights legislation, as Klobuchar and other Democrats have called for in order to pass federal voting rights standards. They could take less drastic steps without outright repealing the rule, such as requiring senators waging filibusters to actually talk at length on the Senate floor to sustain them, something that isn’t the case currently. Or they could decide to scrap the 60-vote threshold entirely.

Manchin has said lately that using the filibuster should be more “painful” for the minority, implying that he might be willing to require “talking filibusters” for certain kinds of legislation. Another proposal kicking around is to require 41 members of the minority to be present on the Senate floor at all times in order to block passage of a bill. Manchin could conceivably support some procedural tweak along those lines for voting-rights legislation in lieu of following Abrams’s advice to just nuke the filibuster for bills of that type altogether.

But he’d only do that if he supports passage of H.R. 1 on the merits. Why take the momentous step of carving out legislative subject-matter exceptions to the filibuster, knowing the slippery slope that would create, only to turn around and vote down the House bill? Surely Manchin and Abrams realize that a future Republican Senate majority will use the precedent created by the rule change to carve out their own exceptions to the filibuster for certain bills depending on whether they can be plausibly described as “fundamental” or not. An obvious one is abortion: Nothing is more fundamental than the right to life, right? Fifty votes for passage on all anti-abortion bills from here on out!

What Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema should do if they’re interested in voting-rights reform at the federal level is use their enormous leverage in the Senate to force a rewrite of H.R. 1. It’s a bad bill in its current incarnation, Charlie Sykes recently observed:

Unfortunately, the reality is that the bill is bloated, overstuffed, and of dubious constitutionality.

While it has valuable provisions — protecting mail-in voting, making it harder to purge voters, gerrymander reform — it has all the makings of legislation crafted by an overcaffeinated committee of progressive activists. It overturns hundreds of state laws and essentially strips states of their ability to regulate voting. Not content with that, it matches campaign contributions with tax dollars and dramatically seeks to rewrite campaign finance rulings by creating new restrictions on constitutionally protected free speech.

Manchin and Sinema could force the House to separate the wheat from the chaff, putting the progressive wishlist garbage into a separate bill that’s doomed to defeat and keeping the more defensible provisions like mail-in balloting in H.R. 1, which could pass via some new filibuster exception. If Manchin was willing to hold up the COVID relief bill for an entire day in exchange for a modest tweak to the timeline for continued federal unemployment benefits, he should be willing to demand that his party give him a leaner, stronger election-reform bill — particularly when they’re also asking him to undertake filibuster reform to get it through. He can dictate his terms here, and he should. What good is being the deciding vote in the Senate if you can’t use your influence to make bad legislation better?

One strong point Abrams made elsewhere in her CNN interview today is that even the Republicans in charge of Georgia’s voting system, Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, admit that there was no evidence of fraud in the state’s recent elections despite the more liberal rules used last year for early voting and mail-in ballots. If those rules make it easier for people to vote (which Republicans claim to agree is a good thing) and if they’re not compromising the integrity of elections then there’s no strong principled argument for not extending them. There’s merely a partisan argument, that the GOP fears it can’t compete with Democrats when more people vote legally and so it has to do what it can to make the process harder.

On that note, I’ll leave you with Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, who’s been allied with Kemp and Raffensperger in defending the propriety of his state’s elections. He calls his party’s efforts to scale back voting options in his state “solutions in search of a problem.”