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The Most Important Thing Democrats Can Do With Their Power Is Protect the Vote

Biden has only months to enact change, and his legacy will be defined by whether he saved voting rights from Republican assault.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaks at the at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Senator Kyrsten Sinema is one of the Democrats who will have to decide whether to keep the filibuster or allow GOP voter suppression schemes to end their political careers.

It should be clear by now that the 117th Congress will go down as one of the most consequential Congresses in modern American history. Reasonable people can disagree on precisely why. Some have insisted since the passage of the coronavirus relief package that Congress has already broken the neoliberal economic consensus that has governed American politics for the last 40 years. Others have suggested, wisely, that we’ll have a better idea where things stand two years from now than we do two months in. But here’s a bold pronouncement we can make: We will learn, this Congress, whether the pretense that the United States is a democracy has finally been strained beyond repair. The Democratic Party is not especially eager to find out. Fortunately for them, the next major item on their agenda may well be a still-forming infrastructure bill that, like the coronavirus relief package, could pass through budget reconciliation on a simple filibuster-proof majority vote and would likely come with a series of appendages that might not pass on their own as regular legislation. But what will happen next? Nobody knows.

A stack of bills that must be passed as regular legislation have been passed by the House and now sit, piled up for the Senate’s consideration. One of them is the For the People Act, or H.R. 1⁠—a long-discussed package of democratic reforms like automatic voter registration and a work-around for restrictive voter ID laws. Its passage into law would be the most significant expansion of political and civil rights in many decades. “There’s no way under the sun that in 2021 we are going to allow the filibuster to be used to deny voting rights,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn said recently. “That just ain’t gonna happen.”

It might, actually. Absent additional changes or its full elimination, the return to the talking filibuster floated in recent days would do little more than place a bow on all the comparisons commentators have spent the last decade making between the contemporary Republican Party and the segregationist right during the civil rights era. Lindsey Graham has already invited us to imagine him taking a Thurmond-esque stand against H.R. 1. Others would champ at the bit to join him.

But as grim as things continue to look in the Senate for progressives, the significance of what Democrats could potentially achieve if moderates change their minds has set off alarm bells on the right. In a call last week with the American Legislative Exchange Council, Ted Cruz told activists that there would be no room for compromise on H.R. 1 and the democratic reform push. “H.R. 1’s only objective is to ensure that Democrats can never again lose another election,” he said. “That they will win and maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and of the state legislatures for the next century.” In an appearance on Fox, he went on to dub it the Corrupt Politicians Act, calling it “the single most dangerous piece of legislation before Congress,” and insisted its passage “would result in millions of illegal immigrants, and criminals, and felons being able to vote.”

The Associated Press recently ran a roll call of organizations looking to carry this message forward and bolster the attack on voting rights at the state level. FreedomWorks is spending $10 million on the effort. The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, has joined with another conservative organization to found an “Election Transparency Initiative.” The Heritage Foundation is spending $700,000 to back voting restrictions in Georgia. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 253 restrictive bills have been “carried over, prefiled, or introduced” in 43 states as of February.

The consequences of failing to pass H.R. 1 are not speculative; the worst-case outcomes are already in motion. If the filibuster lives and the bill dies, the right will push forward a redoubled, all-hands-on-deck effort to curb voting rights for minorities wherever Republicans control government. The days when their intentions were merely unspoken subtext are obviously long gone—for one, Republican politicians and pundits on the right continue to insist openly, despite gains Trump made among Latinos this past election, that the votes of nonwhites are destined for the Democratic column. Is that threat meaningful enough to push Manchin and Sinema further on the filibuster? If it were, Democrats probably wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. But of all the items on the docket for the Senate, H.R. 1 probably stands the best chance of getting the caucus’s loose heads screwed on straighteven after this week’s headlines, the pivotal votes in question are likely to see voting rights as safer ground to tread on than guns and immigration.

The right is already working to convince them otherwise. On Wednesday, the Club for Growth launched a $50,000 ad campaign praising Sinema and Manchin for standing up to the “New Left,” which the ads depict as “a pack of rabid dogs sicced on anyone who isn’t woke.” “They’ve canceled everyone from Dr. Seuss to Abraham Lincoln,” the narrator says in Arizona’s spot. “Now they’re coming for Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema stood up to the New Left, refusing their demands to cancel the filibuster and ram through Pelosi’s election fraud bill. Tell Sinemakeep fighting, don’t cancel the filibuster.”

Obviously, the Club for Growth and the rest of the Republican political machine will be working to cancel Manchin and Sinema next time they’re on the ballot, whether they do the right thing on the filibuster or not. But absent the right pitch from Democrats, both will do exactly what the Club for Growth and their conservative constituents want them to do. Democrats don’t seem much closer to finding that pitch. But they are inching toward a moment of truth, and everyoneleft and rightseems to know it.