Schumer, Senate Dems plot assault on filibuster in new year after elections bill stalls

Not clear whether Schumer will seek full nuclear option or targeted filibuster exception

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Senate Democrats are gearing up for a frontal assault on the legislative filibuster in the new year after their efforts to pass an elections bill were stymied by Republicans in 2021. 

"I would ask you to consider this question: if the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we in good conscience allow for a situation in which the Republican Party can debate and pass voter suppression laws at the State level with only a simple majority vote, but not allow the United States Senate to do the same?" Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a letter to fellow Democrats Monday. 

"I believe our constituents deserve to know which Senators choose to hide behind ill-conceived and abused rules," he added. "Therefore … Members will be given the chance to debate on the Senate floor and cast a vote so that their choice on this matter is clear and available for everyone to see."

Schumer followed up that statement with comments in a virtual caucus meeting Tuesday saying that the Senate will vote on changes to how it operates if Republicans block a Democrat-supported elections bill in January. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speaks to the media after a Democratic policy luncheon, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speaks to the media after a Democratic policy luncheon, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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Schumer's promise is the clearest indication yet that Democrats will try to set a new precedent in the Senate to neuter the legislative filibuster, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes for the body to start or end debate on most legislation.

Many Democratic senators called for such action but because Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., remain opposed to it, Schumer has not made the effort. There's no indication that either of them will change that stance in the new year, which means Schumer's effort will likely fail in the face of unified GOP opposition and division in his own party.

But after multiple major Democratic priorities fizzled out in the Senate in December and with frustration simmering among the party's rank-and-file, Schumer appears to be trying to pressure the two moderates by putting them on the record in votes that are major priorities for the party. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., delivers remarks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. November 1, 2021.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., delivers remarks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. November 1, 2021. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

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Schumer's comments do not specify how the Senate will aim to reform the filibuster. It would take a supermajority to make a formal Senate rules change, meaning that option is off the table because of Republican opposition. Schumer could also try to use the "nuclear option" on all standard legislation – backing the Senate into a specific parliamentary stance and then setting a new precedent to allow the starting and ending of debate on bills with just 51 votes instead of 60. 

Another option is a targeted reform of the filibuster for certain types of bills – for example, voting rights legislation. Many Democratic senators say they support this option. 

"I support using an exemption to the filibuster to pass strong federal voting rights legislation," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said this month. "We can’t let anything stand in the way of protecting the foundation of our democracy. The right to vote is sacred, and we absolutely need to do whatever we have to protect it."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But that option will not succeed unless Manchin and Sinema reverse their positions on the filibuster. Republican senators, meanwhile, are likely to resume their sabre-rattling on the consequences of if Democrats do succeed in getting rid of the filibuster. 

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this year that if Democrats end the filibuster, "[n]obody serving in this chamber can even begin to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like. None of us have served one minute in a Senate that was completely drained of comity and consent."

McConnell Wednesday on the Hugh Hewitt Show warned what Democrats would do if they succeed in getting rid of the filibuster. 

"The reason the Democrats want to get rid of the filibuster is they want to admit two new states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and pack the Supreme Court and fundamentally change the structure of America forever," he said. "The filibuster prevents extremism… and I admire and respect Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin for saying they are not changing it."

Fox News' Caroline McKee and Chad Pergram contributed to this report.