WASHINGTON — A push by Democrats to enact the most expansive voting rights legislation in generations is set to collapse in the Senate on Tuesday, when Republicans are expected to use a filibuster to block a measure that President Biden and his allies in Congress have called a vital step to protect democracy.
Despite solid Republican opposition, Democrats plan to bring the voting rights fight to a head on the Senate floor, by calling a test vote to try to advance the broad federal elections overhaul, known as the For the People Act. As Republican-led states rush to enact restrictive new voting laws, Democrats have presented the legislation as the party’s best chance to undo them, expand ballot access from coast to coast and limit the effect of special interests on the political process.
“We can argue what should be done to protect voting rights and safeguard our democracy, but don’t you think we should be able to debate the issue?” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Monday in a last-ditch appeal to Republicans to let the debate proceed.
But in the hours before the vote, Democrats conceded they were facing defeat — at least for now. Even if they succeeded in securing the votes of all 50 senators in the Democratic caucus, party leaders were expected to fall well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and begin debating the bill.
Instead, they focused on Monday on rallying the party around a more limited alternative proposed by Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who had been the only Democratic holdout on the voting rights measure. Both the White House and former President Barack Obama said his suggestions would address many of the most urgent issues. President Biden and Mr. Manchin also spoke directly about the need to find a legislative solution, according to an official familiar with their conversation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Leaders hope that, given the support for his proposal, Mr. Manchin will vote with the rest of the Senate’s Democrats and Democratic-aligned independents to allow the debate to proceed, allowing his party to present a unified front on the bill.
“What we are measuring, I think, is, is the Democratic Party united? We weren’t as of a couple of weeks ago,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said before acknowledging the vote would fail.
Mr. Obama offered a tepid endorsement, saying it would address many of his concerns about elections, but “doesn’t have everything I’d like to see in a voting rights bill.”
Regardless, Mr. Schumer appeared to have only one remaining option to try to pass the legislation: eliminating or altering the Senate rule that sets a 60-vote threshold for breaking a legislative filibuster. Progressives have clamored to do so since Democrats won a narrow majority in January, and argued before Tuesday’s vote that it would help make their case. Yet a handful of key moderates led by Mr. Manchin insist they will never go along.
One of them, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, dug in further Monday night on the eve of the vote, warning her party in an op-ed in The Washington Post that it would “lose much more than we gain” by eliminating the 60-vote threshold.
“To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act (voting-rights legislation I support and have co-sponsored), I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?” Ms. Sinema wrote.
With the path forward so murky, top Democrats began framing Tuesday’s vote as a moral victory, and potentially a crucial step in building consensus around eventually blowing up the filibuster.
The outcome, Ms. Psaki said, “may change the conversation on the Hill” around the filibuster, but she offered no clear next steps.
After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws making it harder to vote and change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.
- A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of May 14, lawmakers had passed 22 new laws in 14 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
- The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
- More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking Electoral College and judicial election rules, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
- Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
- Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
- Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
- Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.
Mr. Manchin had opposed key planks in the original For the People Act as too intrusive into the rights of states to regulate their own elections. His proposal would eliminate a provision neutering state voter identification laws and strip out a public campaign financing program.
But it preserves other key measures, like an end to partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts and the creation of tough new ethics rules. It would also expand early voting, make Election Day a federal holiday and make it easier to vote by mail.
A Monmouth University Poll released on Monday indicated that Mr. Manchin’s position may be more in line with public sentiment, particularly his support for some kinds of voter identification requirements.
The poll found, for instance, that seven in 10 Americans supported making early in person voting easier and were in favor of the federal government creating national guidelines for mail-in and early in person voting. But eight in 10 said they generally supported voter identification requirements that the For the People Act would effectively neuter.
Republicans are united in their opposition both to Democrats’ original bill and to Mr. Manchin’s changes, describing them as overly prescriptive and geared toward giving their own party an advantage in future elections.
“The real driving force behind S. 1 is the desire to rig the rules of American elections permanently — permanently — in Democrats’ favor,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, referring to the legislation by its bill number. “That’s why the Senate will give this disastrous proposal no quarter.”
Reid J. Epstein and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.