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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: It's about the long game

by John Brummett | January 5, 2022 at 3:20 a.m.




Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer got dramatic about it Monday.

I put it that way fully aware that he and others insist it was plenty dramatic already whether right-wing state legislatures allegiant to Donald Trump would get away with restricting voting rights ... or restricting voter convenience.

How you put that depends on whether you're a Democrat who wants everyone to vote on the basis of citizenship or a Republican who thinks a citizen ought to have to show some initiative or gumption to vote.

Democrats decry new red-state laws saying voters next time cannot get all the mail-voting and drop-box ease they got in the pandemic. Republicans contend they're not denying voting rights by telling people to get off their behinds and follow a few simple steps less complicated than registering a car and getting a driving license.

Democrats say voting is a right and roadway use a privilege. Republicans say you still have a right to vote even if Democrats won't be permitted to send a drone to your house to mark and pick up your ballot. And so it goes.

Schumer put out a strongly worded letter declaring it urgent that, in the notable period between Donald Trump's insurrection anniversary of Jan. 6 and the celebration of voting-rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 17--between the commemoration of an attack on voting and the celebration of an extension of it--he intends for the Senate to take up the voting-rights bill.

Among other things, the legislation would ensure that states have early voting, make Election Day a public holiday and secure the availability of mail-in voting.

That bill cannot pass without the Senate doing something to run over or get around the filibuster rule by which 60 Senate votes are required to close debate and take a vote. All 50 Republicans are opposed to the bill.

Democrats might be able to pass the bill with 50 votes plus Kamala Harris's tie-breaker. But, to get to that point, they'd have to do something to change the filibuster, which Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom would vote for the voting-rights bill (especially Manchin, who helped negotiate it), still say they oppose.

That is to say Manchin and Sinema are for the bill but against blowing up the filibuster to let them vote on it.

They say--and they are absolutely right, as frequently they are--that Democrats would lose in the long run if the 60-vote threshold was removed because Republicans are bound to take over sometimes.

The fact of the matter is that Democrats likely will be in the minority more frequently than Republicans considering Democratic political ineptitude through ham-handed overplays and that the U.S. Constitution effectively subsidizes Republicans by giving the same number of senators--two--to blue states with millions of people and red states with dozens.

If you add up all the votes received nationwide by 50 current Democratic senators--counting the two independents who caucus with them--and the 50 current Republican senators, you'll arrive at a substantial overall vote lead by the Democrats. But that matters no more than the nationwide popular presidential vote matters to the Electoral College.

I'm not advocating changing that. I'm advocating that Democrats not do away with the filibuster.

The more serious talk in Washington is that Democrats will change the filibuster without completely undoing it.

President Biden, a career Senate institutionalist, was opposed to changing the filibuster until a few days ago, when progressive pressure led him to say we should make voting rights a filibuster carve-out.

But making voting rights a single-issue exception opens the door to Republicans to make exceptions in the future for whatever they really want. You may as well blow it up entirely.

Returning filibusters to Jimmy Stewart days when you were forced to keep talking to enforce one, a percolating idea--that would still require one side giving in, and neither side gives in these days.

Changing the rule to say that 41 senators would have to vote affirmatively not to take up a bill rather than the current system reliant on fewer than 60 voting for "cloture"... that's a decent procedural change that I can't see making any difference in the outcome.

Hardened progressives say Republicans are apt to kill the filibuster their next chance if Democrats prove too wimpish to do it. That might be so, although, right now, I doubt Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski would go along, and maybe not Susan Collins or Rob Portman, who's leaving.

The choice for Democrats is the short game or the long game. It's whether to protect voting rights, or voter convenience, while you have the chance, no matter the payback.

I favor the long game because I tire of the partisan seesaw, of what goes up coming just as quickly down, of going up higher and slamming down harder.

If we stop valuing swing votes in a bipartisan center, we'll get even less of them.

We hardly get any now. But there was that infrastructure bill. Long live the infrastructure bill.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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