WASHINGTON — With deadlines looming ahead of next year’s midterm elections, the Senate adjourned on Wednesday for a monthlong recess with only the slimmest of paths left for passing federal voting rights legislation that Democrats hope can stop a wave of Republican state laws clamping down on ballot access.
Before dawn on Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked last-minute attempts to debate a trio of elections bills, but Democratic leaders vowed that more votes would be the “first matter of legislative business” when they return in mid-September. First up is likely to be a scaled-back version of the party’s far-reaching Senate Bill 1, the For the People Act, or S. 1, that Democrats believe will unite all 50 senators who caucus with them.
“Let there be no mistake about what is going on here,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said just after 4 a.m. “We have reached a point in this chamber where Republicans appear to oppose any measure — no matter how common sense — to protect voting rights and strengthen our democracy.”
But such outrage did little to clarify how the party plans to get around a wall of Republican opposition in the Senate that has blocked progress since June. Nor did it quiet some of the outspoken and well-financed activists demanding that President Biden and his congressional majorities do everything possible — including scrapping the Senate’s planned vacation and its legislative filibuster rule — to get the job done.
Pressed by reporters later on Wednesday to outline how exactly Democrats would reverse their fortunes, Mr. Schumer said he was making progress by “showing very clearly to every one of our 50 senators that Republicans won’t join us.”
“As I’ve said before, everything is on the table,” Mr. Schumer said.
Advocates of voting rights legislation believe fleshing out Republicans’ opposition will help build a rationale for centrist Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to reverse course and support either changing the entire filibuster rule or creating an exemption for elections-related changes to pass with a simple majority, rather than 60 votes.
“Biden and Senate Democrats need to tell us what their plan to pass S. 1 is,” said Nita Chaudhary, the head of programming at the liberal advocacy group MoveOn, “before it’s too late.”
The Census Bureau was expected on Thursday to share detailed demographic data with states, kicking off the final stages of the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing congressional districts. Under the current rules, Republicans plan to press their advantages in control of state redistricting processes to draw new maps that tilt the national playing field toward their own candidates, making it easier to retake control of the House next year.
The For the People Act, which passed the House this spring, would end partisan gerrymandering by both parties by forcing states to use independent commissions to draw district boundaries. The bill would also mandate that states set up automatic voter registration, 15 days of early voting and no-excuse mail-in voting. It would require political groups to disclose the identity of their big donors.
But Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, said Democrats could soon lose their window of opportunity to change the course of the redistricting process and the 2022 election. In time, it could similarly become difficult to stop the effects of new voting laws in more than a dozen Republican states that experts say will make it harder for young people and people of color to vote.
“If something passes after states have gone through those processes and the election is underway, it would be much less likely that any congressional requirement could go into effect before the 2024 elections,” Mr. Hasen said of the redistricting process.
Still, Democratic leaders insist they are making progress and can pass elections legislation even as they try to sow up two vast infrastructure and social program bills in the fall.
Mr. Manchin, the only Democratic senator who does not support the original For the People Act, appears to be on the cusp of endorsing a somewhat narrower alternative that he has spent weeks negotiating with fellow Democrats. The new bill is likely to maintain many of the pillars of the original legislation, but include for the first time a national voter identification requirement and lop off new ethics requirements and a public campaign financing program for senators.
Mr. Manchin said this week that he was still trying to win Republican votes for the plan, an unlikely outcome. But his colleagues have another motivation: They believe that Mr. Manchin will be more determined to fight for — and potentially change Senate rules for — a bill he helped write and watched Republicans tank.
“This is an iterative process,” said Senator Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat pushing party leaders not to let the issue lapse. He acknowledged they were up against a “tight deadline.”
The votes early Wednesday morning appeared to be intended to make precisely that point. After hours of debate over Democrats’ separate $3.5 trillion budget blueprint, Mr. Schumer tried to force debates and votes on the original For the People Act, and on narrower bills focused on redistricting and campaign finance disclosure using unanimous consent to waive the normal Senate procedures.
Republicans blocked all three, which they said constituted an attempt by Democrats to usurp the states and rewrite election rules for their benefit.
“This isn’t going to work,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “It isn’t going to work tonight, and it isn’t going to work when we get back.”
Republicans have threatened to grind the Senate to a halt if Democrats ax the filibuster rule. Mr. McConnell also suggested that his vote on Tuesday for Mr. Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package was in part to show Ms. Sinema and Mr. Manchin — two of its lead architects — that the Senate could still function in a bipartisan way.
So far, it has worked.
Ms. Sinema told ABC’s “The View” last week that a rules change could backfire and allow Republicans to pass a nationwide ban on mail-in voting when they next control Congress. And in an interview this month, Mr. Manchin appeared to rule out any filibuster exemptions.
But Democrats still believe the new state voting laws and Republican efforts to rack up new safely red House seats in the weeks ahead may help move the senators.
“They are going to try to use the redistricting process to draw themselves into the majority, not only in the House of Representatives but the state legislatures,” said Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general who leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Mr. Holder said that as long as Congress passed legislation outlawing the practice by the fall, Democrats could probably use the courts to stop the new maps. If not, he suggested Republicans might be correct when they spoke of locking in “a decade of power.”
“That’s what’s at stake,” he said.