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Schumer tees up vote on rules change if voting rights legislation is blocked

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, seen here on Dec. 14, announced the Senate will vote on or before Jan. 17 on changing the Senate rules if Republicans block voting rights again.
Chip Somodevilla
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, seen here on Dec. 14, announced the Senate will vote on or before Jan. 17 on changing the Senate rules if Republicans block voting rights again.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has vowed the Senate will forge ahead on voting rights legislation and will vote on changing the rules of the upper chamber by Jan. 17 if the GOP once again blocks the bill.

"We must adapt. The Senate must evolve, like it has many times before," Schumer wrote in a Dear Colleague letter Monday morning. This message is his strongest to date suggesting that changes to the legislative filibuster are necessary.

"As former Senator Robert Byrd famously said, Senate Rules 'must be changed to reflect changed circumstances,' " he said. "Put more plainly by Senator Byrd, 'Congress is not obliged to be bound by the dead hand of the past.' "

Schumer is tying voting rights legislation to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob

In an effort to make good on their promise to take up voting rights legislation this month, Senate Democrats are linking the upcoming anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol with what they see as increasing threats to the right to vote enacted by various Republican state legislatures.

"Much like the violent insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol nearly one year ago, Republican officials in states across the country have seized on the former president's 'Big Lie' about widespread voter fraud to enact anti-democratic legislation and seize control of typically non-partisan election administration functions," Schumer wrote in the letter.

Democrats say last year's insurrection was propelled by former President Donald Trump's false claims that the election was stolen from him and that election fraud was rampant, allegations that spurred Republican state legislatures to implement new voting restrictions.

Democrats argue passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would, among other things, ensure that states have early voting, make Election Day a public holiday and secure the availability of mail-in voting, are necessary measures to combat the actions taken by some state legislatures.

The GOP is expected to once again reject the bills, arguing they're a form of federal overreach. In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them to advance the legislation because of the 60-vote threshold required under Senate rules. But uniform Republican opposition has led voting rights advocates to urge Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster, or carve out an exception for voting rights legislation.

In order for that to happen, all Democrats need to be on board. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have repeatedly defended the filibuster and may not be open to amending it, despite supporting the voting legislation itself.

Manchin took part in a series of meetings on potential rules changes with other Democratic senators last month, which continued through the holidays.

Senators have been discussing two different approaches to altering Senate rules: either setting up a "talking filibuster" that would give the minority the ability to block action on legislation or creating a carveout that would provide a path for Democrats to pass voting rights legislation with a simple majority, according to a source familiar with the discussions.

This source said the discussions have focused on how to preserve the character of the Senate: "No one wants the Senate to be a hundred-member version of the House."

If a talking filibuster rule is established and a group of senators launched a filibuster, the Senate would be in session 24/7 — no weekends off. There would be a mechanism for a 60-vote threshold to cut off that extended debate period. It's unclear what route Schumer will take, and discussions with leadership and a small group of Senate Democrats, including Manchin, continue this week.

Outside pressure

As Politico reported, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a letter signed by more than 140 mayors of both parties, urging the Senate to pass the two voting rights bills.

Fix Our Senate, a campaign focused on eliminating the filibuster, also shared a letter signed by 60 organizations pressing Senate Democrats to address the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation.

"Just as we needed to extend the debt limit to avoid economic calamity, we need to pass federal democracy and voting legislation to safeguard our democracy," the letter reads. "And just as you had earlier been prepared to recognize that the U.S. economy is more important than the filibuster, we urge you to make a similar assessment when it comes to our democracy and our right to vote."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.