Essential Politics: Voting rights bill on the brink

Vice President Kamala Harris wears a black mask and speaks to reporters
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to reporters Oct. 20 after a voting rights bill failed to pass the Senate.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

When Vice President Kamala Harris was asked last month by Charlamagne Tha God whether Joe Biden or Sen. Joe Manchin III is “the real president of this country,” her fiery response became a viral moment.

“No, no, no, no, it’s Joe Biden,” she said on “Tha God’s Honest Truth with Charlamagne Tha God. “And don’t start talking like a Republican, about asking whether or not he’s president. … And it’s Joe Biden, it’s Joe Biden, and I’m vice president, and my name is Kamala Harris.”

The unusually impassioned exchange obscured a broader discussion of one of the issues that prompted Charlamagne’s skepticism: The administration’s lack of accomplishment on voting rights.

Good morning, and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. This week, I’ll discuss the state of play on the issue as we approach the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection and Democrats set a deadline of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to pass a voting rights bill.


‘Five minutes to midnight’

Charlamagne was reacting to frustration among Democrats that some of Biden’s agenda has been thwarted by Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who holds outsize sway in the evenly divided Senate. Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another conservative Democrat, have expressed reservations about altering the filibuster rule, a Senate tradition that forces many bills to garner 60 votes to pass.

It is a sensitive issue for Biden, because it’s hard to explain to his political base why he cannot pass his agenda, despite Democrats’ control of the House and Senate. Harris, though she technically presides over the Senate, can’t simply change the rules from the chair without support from 50 senators.

Charlamagne was pressing Harris on who could be the “superhero” and force Manchin’s hand, given the near absent support among Republicans for most voting rights legislation.

I happened to be in the White House as Harris was recording her interview with Charlamagne, in a holding room minutes before my own interview with the vice president. Before I spoke with Harris, White House aides made sure to put me on the phone with an official who explained to me in technical detail how the filibuster works, lest I go down the same road as Charlamagne. (Note to Editor: Please change my byline to “Noah Tha Reporting God” in future newsletters.)

The lack of movement on voting has stymied the administration on an issue that many Democrats and elections experts feel is fundamental. Rick Hasen, an election expert at UC Irvine, called it “a five-alarm fire” in an interview with my colleague Chris Megerian to mark the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6.

“We have reached five minutes to midnight for American democracy,” said Jana Morgan, director of Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of more than 240 liberal organizations trying to pass a bill. “There’s no more time for test votes. There’s no more time to feel things out.”


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Harris in a bind

That violent attack on the Capitol was spurred by former President Trump’s baseless claims that the election had been stolen and his repeated attempt to reverse the results and remain in power. Since then, Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws likely to make it harder to vote, while more Trump loyalists have won jobs with oversight of the electoral process. Polls show that large majorities of Trump voters believe his false claims, an indication that they could act more successfully to reverse an election the next time.

Harris, who at her own request was appointed in June by Biden to lead on the issue, has failed to win support for federal voting laws from Republican senators and has not been able to persuade holdout Democrats to carve an exception to the filibuster. Most of her work has instead been spent meeting with activists and speaking at events.

When I asked NAACP President Derrick Johnson whether Harris was truly in charge, he sounded more than skeptical.

“I don’t think that is the case. The White House has not made it a priority,” he said. “Whoever the lead is, we have not had the type of leadership around this question to ensure passage of a bill to protect our rights.”

He said it is up to the West Wing, not Harris, to make voting rights a priority.

Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, said Biden put Harris in a bind, giving her the responsibility to move the bill but not the authority to lead negotiations in the Senate.

Confident in his decades of experience in the Senate, Biden kept control of negotiations with lawmakers, according to Albright, who participated in a virtual meeting with Harris in November. But Biden, he added, has “refused to lean into it.”


Biden has said only that he is open to amending the filibuster; activists want a full-throated call for change.

“Presidents don’t get on Mount Rushmore by telling us what they’re open for,” Albright said.

Advocates have been frustrated that Biden has seemed to prioritize passing his big social welfare and climate bill, which was killed by Manchin in December after months of delicate negotiation. Before that, the president focused on the $1-trillion infrastructure bill he signed in November.

“We see what happens when the administration puts its full weight behind an issue,” said Arndrea Waters King, who spoke with me by phone alongside her husband, Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader. “The administration stood up for bridges, and now it’s time to stand up for the people.”

In a letter to colleagues on Monday, Sen. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, promised to debate changes to the filibuster rule by Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, unless Republicans agree to consider a voting rights bill. His No. 2, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said Tuesday that the Senate would move its focus from the environmental and social spending bill to voting rights, and that he believes the White House is on board with that strategy.

But the threat won’t carry much weight unless they can win over Manchin, Sinema and other potential holdouts reluctant to jettison a long-standing Senate rule.


Activists hope the two moderate senators’ work in crafting a compromise bill will sway them to change their positions on the filibuster and are hopeful the latest deadline will spur some movement.

“I have great hope and confidence that things are moving in a positive direction,” Morgan said.

The King family, meanwhile, is planning protests in Washington and around the country on MLK Day, declaring “no celebration without legislation.”

“It’d be wonderful if it happens before the King holiday, but we’re going to be out there,” Martin Luther King III said in an interview.

He and his wife said they worry that their 13-year-old daughter — Yolanda Renee King, MLK’s only granddaughter — is growing up in a world where King’s legacy on the right to vote is being systematically dismantled. They are raising her in Georgia, one of several states to pass new voting restrictions last year in response to Trump’s false claims.

Biden, who had been criticized for failing to use the bully pulpit, gave a speech on voting rights last month at a commencement ceremony at South Carolina State University, a historically Black university in Orangeburg, S.C. He and Harris also plan to make it a focus of their Jan. 6 remarks on Thursday, as groups around the country hold vigils.


But activists’ patience is wearing thin. Johnson of the NAACP told me in August that it was time “to get past conversations.”

Tuesday, he told me he is not getting his hopes up until he sees real action. “Until a bill is passed, that’s the only thing that’s real.”

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Jan. 6: One year later

— One year on, many of America’s closest allies are still profoundly concerned about the state of U.S. democracy, writes Laura King.

— Until Jan. 6, many members of Congress believed the U.S. Capitol — with metal detectors, barriers and its own police force — to be one of the safest places in the country. In interviews, six members of Congress from California recount their stories from that deadly day to Jennifer Haberkorn, Nolan D. McCaskill and Sarah D. Wire.

— In the aftermath of the attack, a diverse group of Democrats formed a support system, known as the “Gallery Group,” as they navigated the unsettling experience of having survived a violent insurrection, Haberkon reports.

— On Jan. 6, Los Angeles Times photographer Kent Nishimura was assigned to cover a pro-Trump rally at the Ellipse, just south of the White House. He wore a helmet with a GoPro camera attached, capturing footage of the attack that The Times is now publishing for the first time.

Klete Keller had been among the world’s elite freestyle swimmers in the 2000s, competing in three Olympics and winning two gold medals. Then he was seen entering the Capitol on Jan. 6, writes Nathan Fenno, who sought to find out why someone who had spent much of his life representing his country joined the mob to attack a defining symbol of American democracy.

The latest on lawmaker resignations

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) made his resignation from Congress official over the weekend, clearing the way for him to take over as chief executive of Trump’s new media and technology company, Nolan D. McCaskill reports.


— John Myers and Taryn Luna report that California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) announced her resignation Monday and said she plans to take over as leader of the California Labor Federation when its longtime executive secretary, Art Pulaski, steps down this summer.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom promised that schools would receive at-home COVID-19 tests in time for students to safely return to campuses after winter break. But as many school districts resumed classes on Monday, just half of the 6 million tests Newsom promised have been delivered, according to Melody Gutierrez and Mackenzie Mays.

— Melanie Mason reports that former Rep. Harley Rouda will not run for a newly drawn Orange County congressional seat, averting a potentially bruising intra-party battle with Rep. Katie Porter, a fellow Democrat.

— How will California’s new laws affect you? Phil Willon, Myers, Luna and Gutierrez highlight 43 noteworthy new policies for 2022, including several that were approved years ago but are taking effect now.

— And speaking of new laws, Margot Roosevelt has the latest on workplace protections coming to the state this year.

— California children who have lost a parent to COVID-19 could receive up to $5,000 in state-issued trust funds under a bill authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), a proposal that suggests the state subsidy might later be expanded to a “baby bonds” program for children living in poverty, writes Mays.

— Mays also reports that California lawmakers are poised to consider abolishing a standard that links K-12 school funding to daily student attendance, choosing instead a new method that could provide a significant boost to big districts such as Los Angeles Unified.

— Sex workers are at the center of a heated fight in California over people criminalized for standing on street corners. The issue is in Newsom‘s hands as he weighs a bill passed by legislators that would repeal loitering laws used to target prostitution, writes Anita Chabria.

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