Indivisibles -- welcome to our (delayed) May newsletter. This one’s a bit different. We want to go deep into strategy with you and share as much behind-the-scenes info as we have on the fight to get the For the People Act passed through the senate. There are so many twists and turns in this legislative fight that it can be hard to tell -- are we winning or losing? What the hell is really happening here? We won’t sugarcoat things, and we also don’t want to paint a picture of doom. We just want to give you the unvarnished state of things, so you can decide how best to contribute to this effort. Questions? Feel free to reach out to us directly on Twitter: @ezralevin and @leahgreenb.
Where we’ve been
We started the year strong -- with the House passage of the For the People Act. This flew under the radar at the time, but it was actually a really big deal! It’s extremely common for representatives to vote for bills in a divided government, knowing they’ll never become law, and then get cold feet once there’s a unified trifecta (see: Republicans’ decade-long effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act). We were worried earlier this year that the bill might get watered down or blocked entirely, but that didn’t happen -- in fact the For the People Act got strengthened a bit this year. That’s a real success.
More good news: the bill was given the label “S.1” in the Senate -- the number traditionally reserved for the majority party’s top priority bill. And that bill has 49 cosponsors -- all but one member of the Democratic caucus are affirmatively in support, and the lone holdout (Manchin) has not vetoed the bill, but merely raised a few concerns. This is enormous. Traditionally, big complicated bills that face unified GOP opposition do not get similarly unified Democratic support like this so early on in the process. This too is a real win.
Finally, the Senate held a full committee hearing back in March on the For the People Act, and they held a “markup” on the bill just this week. A markup is where senators get a first stab at amending the bill in committee before sending it to the floor for a full senate vote -- and every Democrat on the committee voted in favor of sending it to the floor. This too is a real win.
This feels good, right? Things are proceeding as planned? OK, so here’s where we start running into issues.
The real enemy is time
Forget the discouraging things you’ve heard about Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, or even Mitch McConnell. The real enemy of the For the People Act is time. We’re running out of time for basic policy and political reasons.
On the policy front, it turns out that it takes a fair amount of time to actually implement a piece of legislation after it’s been passed. That’s all the more true for the For the People Act, which is designed in part to undo the damage caused by the avalanche of GOP voter suppression bills at the state level. When we talk to election administration experts, they advise us that many provisions of the democracy reform bill, such as the anti-gerrymandering independent redistricting commissions, will take significant time to implement ahead of the next midterm elections. These experts tell us things start getting dicey if we fail to pass the bill by the end of this summer. In other words, if you want to actually prevent the GOP from gerrymandering and voter-suppressing themselves into a majority next year, you can’t delay the For the People Act much beyond the summer.
Compounding the issue is the political time crunch. The House of Representatives goes on the longest recess of the year at the end of July. They won’t be fully back until September 20th. When they get back, they’ll have additional urgent matters on their plate: the end of the budget year, possibly a fight over the debt ceiling, and infrastructure and care economy reconciliation packages we’ve heard so much about. All of these things will take demand to be prioritized, and will likely eat up what few legislative days there are left in the year. It’s hard to see space for democracy reform this year after the August recess.
Take all that together and you've got a pretty clear picture: either we pass the For the People Act before August recess, or we don’t get another shot this Congress. In other words, we’ve got about two months to pass democracy-saving legislation before it’s too late.
How the legislative fight will play out
Ok, so we’re racing against the clock. And in this race, we’ve got various opponents that could slow us down.
When the For the People Act goes to the floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will rally his Republican colleagues to filibuster it. He may succeed in killing it outright, or he may simply succeed in delaying it to death -- but make no mistake, stopping the For the People Act is widely reported to be McConnell’s top priority this congress. Last week we learned that a hundred conservative leaders meet every single week to coordinate the opposition (here). Just this week, every single GOP senator voted against the bill in committee.
But it’s not just McConnell and the GOP that could slow us down. While almost every Democrat senator has vocally supported reforming the filibuster to pass the For the People Act, senators Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Manchin (WV) have not. It’s easy for cynicism and defeatism to set in when thinking about this. Don’t fall into that trap. Successful bills regularly face public opposition from key senators during the legislative process. But senators change their positions all the time, in response to pressure or in exchange for concessions -- it’s a huge mistake to take their position today as the final word. Is their current public position good? No. But it’s not game over.
At the end of the day, it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to rally the troops. Majority Leader Schumer certainly says the right things -- “failure is not an option.” He gives impassioned speeches and tweets forceful tweets in support of the For the People Act. Earlier this week, the Senate Democrats held a closed-door meeting to discuss the future of the For the People Act. We heard from multiple sources that Schumer made clear his intent to get the For the People Act done by August, come hell or high water. It was reported (here) that Sinema asked him what the strategy was, and Schumer responded that the plan was for Senate Democrats to stick together.
That is indeed the only plan that has any chance of success. The For the People Act will be filibustered. And that’s the moment the Senate Democratic caucus will face a choice: do we let the Republican minority, representing 41 million fewer Americans, veto our agenda and tank our best chance at protecting our democracy? That’s the moment they’ll all get together and talk to each other, and -- hopefully -- take a deep breath, look each other in the eyes, and agree to move this thing forward however they need to.
If we are successful, this will all come to a head in July. And it’s going to take a LOT of pressure from the outside, because plenty of Democrats still think that this is optional, nice-to-have, not something that their constituents will judge their success on. They need to face the reality -- we can make these reforms, or we can watch our democracy collapse around us.
Where does that leave us?
- We know almost every Democrat supports the For the People Act.
- We know the holdouts aren’t lost causes.
- We know that, for policy and political reasons, August recess is the deadline.
- We know Schumer has at least said he plans to get this done by August.
- We know that McConnell and his allies will do everything possible to kill the bill.
- We know that if we fail, the GOP will likely rig the 2022 elections and beyond to win back power.
OK, so what can I do?
We’re working with Indivisibles in West Virginia and Arizona, and they know they’ve got a job to do. But what about everyone else?
Well, let’s go back to that point about the Democratic caucus. Because the reality is, each of these folks don’t make their decisions in a vacuum. They talk to each other. Literally; they have lunch together every Thursday to talk strategy. When legislation passes, it’s because passionate advocates in the Senate helped organize and pull their colleagues along. When it fails, it’s because a decent chunk of the caucus, even folks who would totally have voted “yes” if the bill came to the floor, didn’t actually prioritize getting it done.
If we’re going to pass this bill, we need every Senator who’s currently supporting it to feel in their bones that this bill MUST. PASS. The way they’re going to feel that is if you make them feel that.
At Indivisible -- as activists spread across the country in every state right now -- it’s our job to make it impossible for senators to ignore us in this moment. We did not spend four years resisting Trump to elect a Democratic trifecta that would cave to forces that allowed Trump to rise. It is their responsibility to pass this bill. It is our responsibility to make them do it.
So that is what we will do. We were heartened by the last survey question we sent out asking what Indivisibles are doing to help save our democracy. From postcard parties to light brigade actions to congressional office call-chains to candidate recruitment to anti-misinformation projects. This is inspiring important work -- this is indeed what democracy looks like. We hope as we look toward this summer deadline for the For the People Act, the Indivisible movement will not just continue this work, but will come together with one loud, nationwide, unignorable voice to demand a real democracy -- of, by, and for the people.
Ezra & Leah
PS: For this newsletter, we’re focusing on the For the People Act because it is mostly likely to pass first, but anybody following us knows we’re working hard on D.C. statehood and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act too.
PPS: Can’t resist sharing with the Indivisible family a new picture of Zeke. 7 months old, crawling everywhere, and the proud owner of one single sharp tooth. Many thanks for all the love and support from Indivisibles for this little guy. He is our sunshine.