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Democrats plan a procedural maneuver to open Senate debate on voting rights bills

Updated January 12, 2022 at 8:02 PM ET

Past attempts to advance voting rights legislation to the floor of the Senate have failed, but Senate Democrats believe they have found a way past a procedural hurdle to at least start debate on voting rights legislation this week.

In a memo obtained by NPR, Democrats say that they plan to use existing Senate rules to open debate on two voting rights bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It takes 60 senators to agree to start debate on a bill, as well as end it, but the Senate can start consideration of a message from the House of Representatives with a simple majority vote.

So the House is expected to send both those bills to the Senate as part of a message. In a note to colleagues Wednesday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House would pass the two measures, combined together, Thursday.

"With this procedure, we will finally have an opportunity to debate voting rights legislation – something that Republicans have thus far denied," the memo stated.

But it would still require 60 votes to end debate, under current rules.

"To ultimately end debate and pass the voting rights legislation, we will need 10 Republicans to join us – which we know from past experience will not happen – or we will need to change the Senate rules as has been done many times before," the memo stated.

President Biden backed changing Senate rules to overcome GOP objections to voting rights legislation in a speech in Atlanta on Tuesday, something Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has threatened for weeks.

"If Republicans continue to hijack the rules of the Senate to prevent voting rights from happening, if they continue paralyzing this chamber to the point where we're helpless to fight back against the Big Lie, we must consider the necessary steps we can take so the Senate can adapt and act," Schumer said Tuesday.

However, not all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats agree with changing Senate rules, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

As pressure has mounted on Democrats to change rules, Republicans have been pushing back, saying changing rules will break the Senate and hurt any chance for bipartisanship going forward.

"A post-nuclear Senate would not be more efficient or more productive. I personally guarantee it," GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday. "If the Democratic leader tries to shut millions of Americans and entire states out of the business of governing, the operations of this body will change. Oh, yes. That much is true. But not in ways that reward the rule-breakers. Not in ways that advantage this president, this majority or their party."

Biden is expected to make a personal appeal to Democratic senators on Thursday, when he comes to Capitol Hill to make the case to protect the right to vote and to underline to do so may require rules of the Senate to change.

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

Caitlyn Kim