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Wake Up To Politics - June 23, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Inside the Capitol as the Democrats’ top priority apart
Wake Up To Politics - June 23, 2021

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, June 23, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 503 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,231 days away.

I was inside the Capitol on Tuesday as a top Democratic priority was shot down by the Senate. Read on for my hallway interviews with Vice President Kamala Harris and others, plus more observations from the day below...

After months of anticipation, a sweeping Democratic elections bill failed to advance in the Senate on Tuesday as Republicans banded together to filibuster the legislation.

The bill was blocked by a 50-50 vote, exactly along party lines, falling 10 votes short of the supermajority threshold it needed to move forward. The procedural vote ensures that debate will not even be held on the measure, which was dubbed “S.1” to denote its status as the Democratic Party’ top legislative priority.

Formally titled the “For the People Act,” the 888-page bill would have required states to offer same-day and automatic voter registration, expanded early voting and mail-in voting, made Election Day a federal holiday, revamped campaign finance and federal ethics laws, and limited partisan gerrymandering.

The way the Democrats told it, Tuesday’s vote was just the opening salvo in their epic battle for voting rights. “Today the bell’s going to ring on round one of the fight to defend our Constitution,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the bill’s sponsor, said in a press conference before the vote.

“We will go from round one, to round two, to round three, to round four of this battle, until we win in defense of the Constitution,” he later promised.

But what will the next rounds entail? Democratic leaders declined to say. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was pressed repeatedly by reporters before the vote to outline his plan to push for the legislation despite Republican opposition. He demurred at every opportunity.

“We are not going to put the cart before the horse,” he said. “We are going to have this vote, then we will discuss the future.”

Asked what he believed would be the best next steps, Schumer replied, “I am not going to discuss those now,” flashing a look of irritation as successive journalists sounded the same theme in their questioning.

Sen. Chuck Schumer addresses reporters. (Gabe Fleisher/Wake Up To Politics)

However, in the hours directly after the vote, no new plan emerged. The only new development was an announcement by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the committee chair with jurisdiction over the measure, that she would hold a series of additional hearings on the legislation, including a field hearing in Georgia.

Not exactly the stuff of a “battle for the soul of America,” as Schumer termed the fight earlier in the day.  

That’s because Tuesday’s vote — for all the dramatic buildup — did nothing to fundamentally change the calcalus on the issue. Democrats scored a win when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted with them to advance the bill, after striking an agreement that his more moderate substitute amendment would be considered in its place if the measure were to advance.

But the vote to block the bill did not, as some activists had hoped, inspire any change in Manchin’s defense of the legislative filibuster, the procedural tool standing in the way of voting rights legislation and other Democratic action items.

Anything more dramatic than a set of hearings, such as the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster, lacks support from Manchin and some other centrist Democrats. “I think y’all know where I stand on the filibuster,” Manchin told reporters as he was asked about the issue for the umpteenth time after casting his vote on the Senate floor.

And with the filibuster intact, no voting rights bill will advance without Republican support. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), one of the chamber’s leading dealmakers, told me on Tuesday that he was open to negotiations on the issue.

“I’m happy to work with Sen. Manchin or others to see if we can have a bipartisan voting rights bill,” Romney said. “That hasn’t happened so far. All we’ve seen so far are bills put together by Democrats only. That’s not going to pass.”

However, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), the No. 4 Republican in the chamber, firmly said he would shoot any measure that would federalize election rules, as S.1 sought to do. “State and local governments are the best people to run elections,” he told me. (Blunt did open the door to a bill more explicitly tied to expanding the Voting Rights Act, telling me he’d discussed it with Manchin and was “open to looking” at it further.)

Reporters chase after Sen. Joe Manchin. (Gabe Fleisher/Wake Up To Politics)

That leaves S.1 firmly stuck in neutral. Without divulging any details, though, top Democrats insisted that their battle would wage on, despite their apparent lack of attainable options.

“The fight’s not over,” Vice President Kamala Harris told me as she exited the Senate floor after presiding over the vote on the For the People Act, which has been one of the top issues she has promoted since taking office.

But when I tried to ask a follow-up about where the fight would go from there, she walked into an elevator and stared silently ahead, offering no response as the machine whisked her away from the Capitol.

(Listen to my brief exchange with the vice president here.)

Reporter’s Notebook: Inside the Senate chamber as the Democrats’ top priority fell apart

Watching the Senate in action can be a somewhat disorienting experience.

For most of the day, the chamber is largely empty, as senators pontificate to rows of invisible colleagues. It’s hard to tell from C-SPAN’s cameras, but often the senator speaking is one of the only ones there to hear themselves.

The room only begins to fill once a vote is going on — such as the one Tuesday evening, on the For the People Act — but those too can be strange to watch.

Ostensibly, the chamber votes by roll call, with a clerk reading off the names of each senator and waiting for them to answer “yea” or “nay.” But almost no senators actually listen or wait their turn: mostly, they simply wander up to the dais and either point up or down to indicate their vote on their own time.

(At one point, Sen. Ron Wyden attempted to cast his vote while standing at the back of the room, his hand stretched towards the ceiling to signal a vote in the affirmative. When no one saw him, he yelled out “Senator Wyden, aye,” and walked off.)

As the roll call is read — and ignored — rhythmically in the background, a din of chatter emerges from the chamber, as senators walk around and schmooze with their colleagues. It is politicking and legislating and relationship-building all at once, a rare chance to see power politics in real-time.

With all the chatter, it can be hard to pick up any one conversation from a reporter’s perch in the press gallery, but some exchanges were audible.

Unsurprisingly, on Tuesday, one clear power center was Sen. Joe Manchin, who held court on the floor for most of the vote. A steady stream of Democrats came up to him, many clapping him on the back or embracing him in celebration of his vote in favor of the party’s elections package.

Manchin dutifully stopped by the desk of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after casting his vote. “Just as you said,” Schumer could be heard saying proudly, before flashing a thumbs-up, shaking Manchin’s hand, and then patting his arm affectionately.

Another hub of activity was around Vice President Kamala Harris, who is the Senate’s presiding officer but rarely presides over the chamber. Several Democrats went up to spend time with their former colleague, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who spent most of the vote kneeling on the dais to commiserate with her onetime presidential primary rival.

Later, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema came up to join them. Flashing the leg brace she has sported since a recent injury, Sinema could be heard saying: “This is why I missed you last week,” referring to a bipartisan dinner for female senators that Harris hosted. “You should see the other guy,” a nearby Sen. Pat Leahy joked.

For a day of dramatics — this was the opening stage in a “battle for the soul of America,” remember — the scene was very calm, as senators chatted away throughout the vote. Apparently, grand constitutional struggles come with a lot of laughter and back-slapping.

Despite the charged, partisan issue before them, there were even a few senators who walked to the other side of the aisle to catch up with their cross-party colleagues.

None seemed particularly interested in the vote, which both sides had been hyping all day as a signal event. The outcome, after all, was pre-ordained. “Very suspenseful,” one senator could be heard saying wryly as the votes were cast and the For the People Act was duly ushered to the legislative graveyard.

The Rundown

What else you need to know to start your day.

NYC ELECTION: “Mayoral candidate Eric Adams, a former police officer who has made public safety the centerpiece of his campaign, held a strong lead in New York City’s Democratic primary Tuesday night, but didn’t get enough votes to reach the threshold to be declared the winner of the race, preliminary results showed.” — Wall Street Journal

  • With 84% of the vote reporting, Adams stands at 31.7% of the first-choice votes, followed by Maya Wiley at 22.3% and Kathryn Garcia at 19.5%. Andrew Yang, once the frontrunner, has conceded the race after finishing a distant fourth. The election is being conducted by ranked-choice voting, so a winner will not be known until several more rounds of balloting are tabulated.

CORONAVIRUS: “The United States will miss President Biden’s original goal of getting at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine to 70 percent of adults by July 4, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients conceded Tuesday.” — Washington Post

AMERICA AND THE WORLD: “Four Saudis who participated in the 2018 killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi received paramilitary training in the United States the previous year under a contract approved by the State Department, according to documents and people familiar with the arrangement.” — New York Times


What’s happening in Washington today. (All times Eastern.)
Executive Branch
→ President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:50 a.m. Later, at 11 a.m., he will deliver remarks at the funeral ceremony for the late Sen. John Warner (R-VA), who died last month. At 12:45 p.m., he will have lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris. At 2:15 p.m., he will hold a meeting on crime and safety. At 3:30 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on his administration’s gun crime prevention strategy.

→ Vice President Kamala Harris will join Biden for his daily intelligence briefing and for lunch. She will also hold a listening session on voting rights at 12 p.m. and a roundtable marking Pride Month at 4 p.m.

→ Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will travel to Chicago, Illinois, as part of the Biden administration’s nationwide tour to encourage vaccinations. At 1 p.m., he will visit a Black-owned barbershop participating in the “Shots at the Shop” initiative. At 2:30 p.m., he will visit a local vaccination clinic and participate in a listening session with health center workers and community members.

→ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 12:45 p.m.

Legislative Branch
The Senate will convene at 2 p.m. The chamber will hold a cloture vote at 3 p.m. to advance the nomination of Deborah Boardman to be a U.S. District Judge for the District of Maryland. At 5:45 p.m., the Senate will vote on Boardman’s confirmation, followed by a cloture vote to advance the nomination of Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the 7th Circuit.

The House will convene at 10 a.m. The chamber will vote on H.R. 2062, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act, before voting under “suspension of the rules” on 16 pieces of legislation (possibly as a bloc):

  • H.R. 482, the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Reauthorization Act
  • H.R. 3752, the Pandemic Effects on Home Safety and Tourism Act
  • H.R. 3723, the Consumer Safety Technology Act
  • H.R. 3182, the Safe Sleep for Babies Act
  • H.R. 1314, the STURDY Act
  • H.R. 3841, the Tribal Health Data Improvement Act
  • H.R. 2694, the Criminal Judicial Administration Act
  • H.R. 2922, the Elder Abuse Protection Act
  • H.R. 961, the Justice for Juveniles Act
  • H.R. 3239, to make improvements in the enactment of title 41, United States Code, into a positive law title and to improve the Code
  • H.R. 3241, to make improvements in the enactment of title 54, United States Code, into a positive law title and to improve the Code, as amended
  • H.R. 704, the ARTS Act
  • H.R. 2571, the AMIGOS Act
  • S. 1340, a bill to amend title 28, United States Code, to redefine the eastern and middle judicial districts of North Carolina
  • H.R. 2679, the Foundation of the Federal Bar Association Charter Amendments Act
  • S. 409, to provide for the availability of amounts for customer education initiatives and non-awards expenses of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Whistleblower Program

→ The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on the FBI budget request. FBI Director Christopher Wray will testify.

→ The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on the Treasury Department budget request. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will testify.

The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on the Defense Department budget request. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on the youth vaping epidemic. Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) will testify.
Judicial Branch
The Supreme Court will release opinions at 10 a.m.

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