Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened up the Senate session on Tuesday by filing a procedural motion on the House’s combined voting rights bill, setting up a showdown later this week on election reform.

After a Democratic caucus meeting later that day, Schumer laid out his plan for what happens if Senate Republicans move to block the voting rights bill.

What You Need To Know

  • The Senate began debate Tuesday on the combined voting bill, which contains the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, two key tenets of Democrats' platform on expanding access to the ballot box

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged the uphill battle that the legislation faces in the chamber, "especially when virtually every Senate Republican ... is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote," but pledged that the Senate will take up voting rights, which he called an issue "vital to the future of our democracy"

  • Schumer said Tuesday night that if Republicans block the measure, he will put forward a proposal to change the Senate's rules to allow for a "talking filibuster," which would allow opponents of the bill to block it by physically holding the floor – after that, it could pass with a simple majority

  • According to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws in the last year, the most since the group began tracking such legislation in 2011.

The Senate began debate Tuesday on the combined voting bill, which contains the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, two key tenets of Democrats' platform on expanding access to the ballot box.

"If Republicans block cloture on legislation before us, I will put forward a proposal to change the rules to allow for a 'talking filibuster' on this legislation as recommended by a number of our colleagues who've been working on this reform for a long time," Schumer said Tuesday evening.

The "talking filibuster" would allow opponents of the bill to block it by physically holding the floor – after that, it could pass with a simple majority.

"Once members of the minority party have exhausted all of their speaking rights and defended their position on Senate floor, debate will have run its course," Schumer said, noting that the chamber will then "move to vote on final passage at a majority threshold,which has always been the threshold for final passage."

"I hope every Senator will embrace this practical reform," Schumer said.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine described the effort as "switching a secret filibuster into a public and transparent filibuster."

But it's unclear if such a move will win the support of moderate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have opposed changes to the 60-vote legislative filibuster threshold.

"Senate Democrats, we are going to fight the fight," Schumer pledged. "Win, lose, or draw, we’re going to vote. We know this is an uphill fight."

The sweeping Freedom to Vote Act, which carries the crucial backing of Sen. Manchin, would make Election Day a national holiday, create a national standard for voter identification, crack down on long voting lines at polling places, expand mail-in voting and mandate states offer a minimum number of days for early voting. It would also outlaw partisan gerrymandering of resdistricting maps, overhaul campaign finance reform and make it a federal crime to harass or threaten election officials.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update and restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in separate decisions in 2013 and 2021.

"Just a few days removed from what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 93rd birthday, the Senate has begun the debate on the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act for the first time in this Congress," Schumer said. 

Schumer acknowledged the uphill battle that the legislation faces in the chamber, "especially when virtually every Senate Republican, every Senate Republican is staunchly against legislation protecting the right to vote," but pledged that the Senate will take up voting rights, which he called an issue "so vital to our country, so vital to our ideals, so vital to the future of our democracy."

"Win, lose or draw, members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights," Schumer said on the floor of the Senate. "The public is entitled to know where each senator stands on an issue with issue as sacrosanct as defending our democracy."

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono joined in on criticizing Republican colleagues, saying on the Senate floor Tuesday that "many of my Republican colleagues have joined Congressman John Lewis to commemorate the march from Selma to Montgomery, but today they won't even allow the Senate to consider legislation named in his honor and have called this bill radical."

But in a rebuttal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed Democrats for what he called an about-face on the filibuster: "Just miraculously, it became a Jim Crow relic in 2021."

"The partisan election takeover bills Democrats want to ram through this week are not in any way successors of the civil rights legislation from the mid 20th century," he added.

"They literally wielded the 60-vote threshold themselves," McConnell said of a vote last week about sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which failed with 55 votes. "A useful reminder of just how fake, fake the hysteria has been."

It should be noted that McConnell and Senate Republicans utilized the nuclear option in 2017 to subvert the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees and appoint Neil Gorsuch to a lifetime appointment the high court.

"The American people deserve to see their senators go on record on whether they will support these bills are oppose them," Schumer said, promising a tough vote for many members of the Senate. "Indeed, that may be the only way to make progress on this issue now, for the public. To see where each of us in this chamber stands."

"The eyes of the nation will be watching what happens this week in the United States Senate," Schumer said.

The eyes of the nation will also no doubt be focused intently on Manchin and Sinema, who were singled out with a barrage of criticism during Martin Luther King Jr. Day events for their refusal to change what civil rights leaders call the "Jim Crow filibuster."

Martin Luther King III, the son of the late civil rights leader, compared Sinema and Manchin to the white moderate his father wrote about during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s — a person who declared support for the goals of Black voting rights but not the direct actions or demonstrations that ultimately led to passage of the landmark legislation.

"History will not remember them kindly," the younger King said, referring to Sinema and Manchin by name.

This will be the fifth time the Senate will try to pass voting legislation this Congress, as elections officials warn that new state laws are making it more difficult to vote in some parts of the country.

The House has passed the package, but the legislation is stalled in the Senate, opposed by Republicans. With a 50-50 split, Democrats have a narrow Senate majority — with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties — but they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the chamber's legislative filibuster threshold.

Once reluctant to change Senate rules, President Joe Biden used the MLK Day holiday to pressure senators to do just that.

"It's time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand," Biden said on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "It's time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?"

The attack on our democracy is real,” Biden said. “From the Jan. 6 insurrection to the onslaught of Republicans’ anti-voting laws in a number of states. It's no longer just about who gets to vote. It's about who gets to count the vote, and whether your vote counts at all. It's about two insidious things: Voter suppression, and election subversion.”

While the Senate is gearing up for a long debate, the outcome is expected to be no different than past failed votes on the legislation. Biden has been unable to persuade Sinema and Manchin to join other Democrats in changing the rules to lower the 60-vote threshold. In fact, Sinema upstaged the president last week, reiterating her opposition to the rules changes just before Biden arrived on Capitol Hill to court senators' votes.

Biden met last week with members of the Senate Democratic caucus to advance voting rights legislation, but admitted he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to change the Senate’s filibuster rules to get it done — especially as moderate Democrat Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reiterated their support for keeping the filibuster intact, much to the dismay of the progressive wing of the party.

“The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said last week. “I hope we can get this done but I’m not sure.”

Still, Biden pledged to press on in the fight to expand access to the ballot box: “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time.”

“If we miss this time and the state legislative bodies continue to change the law not as to who can vote but who gets to count the vote, count the vote, count the vote — it’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote,” the president warned. “Who counts the vote? That’s what this is about, that’s what makes this so different from anything else we’ve ever done.”

“I don’t know that we can get it done but I know one thing, as long as I have a breath in me, as long as I am in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures [are] moving,” he pledged.

Biden's view, the White House said Tuesday, "is that the American people deserve to see where their leaders stand on protecting their fundamental rights."

"That is a reason to move forward with this debate," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing Tuesday. "You've heard the President say ... that until his last breath he will be fighting for the protection of voting rights. And that means conversations and fighting to get legislation at the federal level through is going to continue and those conversations will continue."

"Right now our focus is on the debate, on the vote that is going to be happening and on the fact that it will highlight very clearly for the American people up who stands with them in protecting their voting rights and who stands against it," she added.

Senators have been working nonstop for weeks on rules changes that could win support from Sinema and Manchin, only to see their efforts repeatedly dashed.

"All 50 Democrats, all 50, have agreed to the voting rights protection bill, we're just hung on this procedure that effectively gives Mitch McConnell a veto," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in an interview with CBS News Tuesday morning.

The two senators, both moderates, have expressed openness to discussing the ideas, but have not given them their backing.

Both Manchin and Sinema have supported the voting rights legislation, but argued that preserving the Senate filibuster rules as they are, at the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation, is important for fostering bipartisanship. They also warn of what would happen if Republicans win back majority control, as is distinctly possible this election year, and could easily pass GOP-backed bills.

Sinema came under particularly fierce criticism on social media for invoking King as well as the late Rep. John Lewis, whose name is on the legislation, despite her refusal to change the rules.

Blame also fell to Senate Republican leader McConnell, who is leading his party against the voting legislation. The Kentucky Republican has argued the legislation is a federal overreach into state-run elections, and he harshly criticized Biden's speech last week as "unpresidential."

Civil rights leaders have implored the Senate to act swiftly, as states are passing laws that many argue will make it more difficult for Black Americans and others to vote by consolidating polling locations, refusing to allow water distribution in long lines and requiring certain types of identification.

"We cannot think of a time more defining to the American story than the chapter you are presently writing," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote in an open letter to the Senate.

"What country will your children and grandchildren be left with, given the relentless assaults on American freedom and democracy?"

Manchin spokeswoman Sam Runyon said in a statement late Monday: "Senator Manchin believes strongly that every American citizen of legal age has not only the right, but also the responsibility to vote and that right must be protected by law. He continues to work on legislation to protect this right."

Sinema's office did not respond to a request for comment.