S-1: An Unintended Consequence?

By Jim Ellis

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY)

June 7, 2021 — Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) has scheduled the controversial federal elections bill, S-1, the companion measure to the House-passed HR-1, for debate on June 21, which appears to be a curious move. At this point, it seems improbable that the leadership can break the filibuster rule, and without doing so, how does the bill pass?

If such an observation is correct, then what does Sen. Schumer gain from bringing the bill to the floor, and will there be unintended consequences? These are questions to be answered after the bill is debated and either passed, dispensed with, or put on hold for a future legislative maneuver.

As we know, the filibuster rule is surviving because Democrats Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) won’t support changing the rule. Both senators, at least at this point, seem intransigent in their position.

Sen. Manchin just this week verbally shot back at reporters for continually asking him if he is changing his stance on the filibuster rule. “I’m not separating our country, OK?” Manchin said. “I don’t know what you all don’t understand about this. You ask the same question every day. It’s wrong.”

The Daily Kos Elections site yesterday published a filibuster-related response from Sen. Sinema to an Arizona constituent identifying himself through an email address as Triumph110. Below is an excerpt from a very long historically based response:

“I have long said that I oppose eliminating the filibuster for votes on legislation. Retaining the legislative filibuster is not meant to impede the things we want to get done. Rather, it’s meant to protect what the Senate was designed to be.

“I believe the Senate has a responsibility to put politics aside and fully consider, debate, and reach compromise on legislative issues that will affect all Americans. Therefore, I support the 60-vote threshold for all Senate actions. Debate on bills should be a bipartisan process that takes into account the views of all Americans, not just those of one political party. Regardless of the party in control of the Senate, respecting the opinions of senators from the minority party will result in better, commonsense legislation.

“My position remains exactly the same now that I serve in the majority. While eliminating the filibuster may result in some short-term legislative gains, it would deepen partisan divisions and sacrifice the long-term health of our government. I will continue working across the aisle with my colleagues in the United States Senate to ensure our legislative process upholds the integrity of our democracy.”

One theory to explain the Democratic strategy is that Sen. Schumer is bringing the bill to the floor not only to placate the vocal left wing of his caucus but also to help set an issue stage for the 2022 Senate elections. If the Democrats can convert a net of two states in the next vote — and the Republicans are already risking five open seats — then they will have the ability in the next Congress to change the filibuster rule in order to pass transformational controversial legislation irrespective of where Sens. Manchin and Sinema stand.

There is risk in such a strategy, however, and it likely involves Sen. Sinema’s Arizona partner, freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. As you will remember, Kelly was elected in the November special election to fill the unexpired balance of the late Sen. John McCain’s (R) final term. He is again on the ballot in the next election, standing for a full six-year term.

Kelly defeated appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R) in the 2020 election with a closer than expected 51-49 percent margin. On this upcoming vote, he will likely be pushed into a situation of voting to change the filibuster rule while Sen. Sinema opposes, thus allowing an eventual Arizona Republican nominee to push Sen. Kelly further to the left in executing the strategic goal of forcing him outside the Arizona ideological mainstream.

Though the Grand Canyon State is certainly moving to the political center in terms of partisan politics, it is still a fundamentally conservative place, and Sen. Kelly may find himself increasingly politically vulnerable as a consequence of the Schumer S-1 legislative move. Therefore, if any single Democrat is unintentionally politically disadvantaged because of the S-1 vote, is appears Sen. Kelly may well be the one.

Regardless of how the S-1 debate and vote ultimately ends, we are clearly headed for a period of high drama in the US Senate.

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