Senate Democrats are set for a reckoning on their months-long pledge to pass voting rights legislation, including trying to change the rules to leapfrog needing GOP support.
The Senate had been scheduled to be out of town this week for a weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. Day recess.
But Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) kept the Senate in town in order to bring up voting rights legislation, paving the way for a months-long shadow fight over the legislative filibuster, which requires 60 votes for most bills to advance, to come to a head.
The debate means the Senate is missing Schumer's self-imposed deadline to hold the rules change vote by Monday.
Schumer had threatened to keep senators in town through the weekend to meet the date, but the schedule got shuffled in the wake of Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) testing positive last week in a breakthrough COVID-19 case, which left Democrats short of the votes needed to start debate on the legislation. Senators were also worried about the threat of a weekend winter storm, which dumped snow and ice onto Washington, D.C., on Sunday.
Instead, the Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, with Schumer expected to move to tee up a vote on ending debate on legislation that merges the Freedom to Vote Act, which overhauls federal election and campaign finance laws, with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which strengthens the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
To overcome the hurdle, with a vote expected on Wednesday, according to Senate Democrats, they will need the support of 10 Republicans - something they aren't expected to get. After that happens, Schumer has vowed that he will bring up a change to the Senate's rules to try to get around the current 60-vote requirement for most legislation.
"Members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as this one, and we will proceed. And if the Senate Republicans choose obstruction over protecting the sacred right to vote, as we expect them to, the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules," Schumer said late last week, announcing the upcoming schedule.
Democrats haven't announced what their rules change proposal will be.
They are debating creating a carveout for the filibuster that would exempt voting legislation from the 60-vote hurdle while leaving it intact for other bills. Another idea would be to revert to a talking filibuster that would allow opponents to delay a bill for as long as they could hold the floor, but once they stopped the bill would be able to pass by a simple majority.
But to change the rules without GOP support, Democrats would need total unity - something they don't have.
Despite a wave of public and private pressure from President Biden, Schumer and most of their Democratic colleagues, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) reiterated last week that they won't vote to change the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Their positions weren't new, but they came around Biden's meeting with Senate Democrats and ahead of key votes this week.
"As such, and as I have said many times before, I will not vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster," Manchin said in a statement shortly after the caucus's meeting with Biden.
Sinema, in a floor speech before Biden's meeting, reiterated that she has had "long-standing support" for the legislative filibuster.
"It is the view I continue to hold. It is the belief I have shared many times in public settings and in private settings," Sinema said.
But Democrats are vowing to push forward with the votes, even if they are destined to fail. Democrats view voting rights legislation as a top priority as GOP-led state legislatures have enacted new voting laws in the wake of the 2020 election, which former President Trump falsely claimed was stolen.
"Right now, it doesn't look like it has the votes to pass, but we're going to cancel our Martin Luther King Day recess and be there this week because we think it's so important for the country," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has helped lead the rules discussions.
VA health care
The House is also in session this week and will take up legislation automatically enrolling National Guard members and reservists into Veterans Affairs health care after they leave the service.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in a statement that the bill would "provide a health safety net for service members during the transition process by automatically enrolling those eligible in VA healthcare."
Though most of the Senate's focus is expected to be on the voting rights and filibuster votes, Democrats could also schedule nomination votes toward the end of the week, according to a schedule update from Senate Democrats.
Democrats haven't indicated who they could schedule votes on. But they still need to take a final vote on Holly Thomas's nomination to be a judge for the 9th Circuit, after the Senate took an initial procedural vote late last year.