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Essential Politics: Democrats take on voting rights — and their own divisions

A lone voter casts his ballot at a voting center
A lone voter casts his ballot at a voting center at Boys & Girls Club of Ramona Gardens in Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

This is the June 16, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

As Texas Republicans prepared to vote on a bill that would tighten voting restrictions last month, President Biden spoke out.

“It’s part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year,” Biden told the Texas Tribune.

The Texas bill ultimately didn’t pass — Democratic lawmakers staged a walkout on May 30, denying the legislature a necessary quorum, though Republicans have promised to take up the bill again. It’s one small scuffle in a broader debate over voting rights that’s taking place in statehouses across the country.

Eight months after the election, the stakes have grown ever higher. We covered the Georgia law in an earlier edition of this newsletter, noting the increasing pressure on businesses to enter the fray. Now it’s the federal government’s turn to face calls for action.

Last month, leaked audio revealed that the head of a national conservative group said it secretly helped draft new voting legislation amid a coordinated effort to push restrictions through statehouses. And as Republicans rally around the false claim that President Trump didn’t lose the election, voting procedures have been put in the spotlight despite no evidence of fraud and local elections officials are quitting their jobs over harassment.

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Biden has followed up his condemnation by appointing Vice President Kamala Harris to steer the administration’s efforts to bolster voting rights. House Democrats made the first move toward setting federal standards with a bill they passed in March. But that’s where things get tricky, as my colleagues Sasha Hupka and Chris Megerian write this week.

Senate Democrats have several paths before them, none of them a clear win. And with two bills on the table, they can’t seem to agree on which to pursue.

Why are there two voting bills?

Senate Democrats are giving a fresh look at two bills that were previously written for different purposes.

The For the People Act was drafted in 2017 as a messaging bill — legislation sure to fail with Republicans in control and Trump in the White House, but designed for candidates to tout on the campaign trail. This is the bill House Democrats already approved.

The other bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, was a reaction to a 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act called preclearance — a mandate that certain states and counties with a track record of racial discrimination get voting law changes approved by the Department of Justice or the D.C. District Court.

Of course, these aren’t the only two options, but Democrats are working with a tight timeline and tighter margins. That makes prewritten bills a better first choice.

What’s in them?

Though they both address voting rights, Hupka and Megerian write that they’re very different bills.

The For the People Act would create uniform federal election rules for all 50 states, including preserving early voting, voting by mail and same-day registration. It also includes election provisions that go beyond voting, such as tightening ethics rules across the government, expanding lobbyist disclosures and requiring presidential nominees to release their tax returns.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is much narrower. It aims to strengthen the existing Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a pathway to challenge any new voter laws and restore the preclearance process for a variety of changes.

What are the chances either passes?

Not great. Senate Republicans largely remain opposed to new federal voting laws.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would bring the For the People Act to a vote. But while it has celebrity backing, the bill doesn’t appear to have broad support in the Senate. Supporters need 60 votes to break an expected filibuster from Republicans and move forward, a goal they are unlikely to reach. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has already said he will not support it, calling the bill too partisan and too broad.

He is, however, interested in strengthening the Voting Rights Act, showing early support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). That bill died in a Senate committee in 2019, but Democrats may have a better shot this time with their slim majority.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has a third option outside of Congress. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland has vowed that the Justice Department would fight voting restrictions and controversial audits through the legal system.

[Read the story “Democrats want a voting rights overhaul. Why are they pursuing rival paths to get there?”]

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More on foreign relations

— Biden agrees with Russian President Vladimir Putin on at least one thing: Relations between their two nations are at a very low ebb. Here’s what to watch as the two meet Wednesday in Geneva, writes Eli Stokols.

— This week, Biden is trying to repair critical ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a key alliance Trump had called “obsolete.” Biden called the meetings a success, saying “America is back,” report Stokols and Tracy Wilkinson.

— Biden also announced an agreement Tuesday with the European Union to end a 17-year dispute over aircraft subsidies. The announcement appeared to give the president another “win,” Stokols reports.

— From Wilkinson and Laura King: Few expect the U.S. and Israel to make progress on major outstanding issues, but new prime minister Naftali Bennett isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House is embracing the country’s new government leadership with a sigh of relief.

— Biden unveiled his picks for several high-profile ambassadorial postings, tapping career diplomats as well as political allies and even aviation hero C.B. ”Sully” Sullenberger.

The view from Washington

— The Senate confirmed progressive antitrust expert Lina Khan to a Federal Trade Commission seat on Tuesday, giving the five-member commission a third Democratic vote, Hupka reports.

— The Biden administration announced the major expansion of a program to allow Central American youths into the United States legally, part of its stated goal to increase “legal pathways” for immigration, Wilkinson writes.

— New data show that as federal officials continue to rely on an obscure 1944 public health law, apprehensions of migrants crossing the border are now five times higher than last year, reports Molly Hennessy-Fiske.

— From Jennifer Haberkorn: Prospects for a bipartisan infrastructure bill are growing increasingly dim as Senate Democrats make new calls for Biden to ditch Republicans and pursue a Democrats-only measure that aggressively addresses their priorities.

— Progressive Democrats are also ramping up their calls for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer to step down from the bench to ensure that a replacement could be confirmed while the party remained in control, Haberkorn reports.

— The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would make Juneteenth, or June 19th, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

The view from California

— The California Legislature on Monday approved a $264-billion state budget blueprint, but it’s not the final budget of record. That’s because the state’s budget deadline doesn’t work like voters might think, writes John Myers.

— The California Legislature on Monday approved a $100-million plan to bolster California’s legal marijuana industry, which continues to struggle to compete with the large illicit pot market, Patrick McGreevy writes.

— A $929-million federal grant for the California bullet train project was restored Thursday, reversing a decision by the Trump administration to terminate the funding. But it doesn’t address the project’s significant problems, writes Ralph Vartabedian.

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