Vice President Harris, Texas Lawmakers Meet To Push Voting Reform : The NPR Politics Podcast Democrats on the Hill are meeting with Democratic state lawmakers from Texas to discuss federal legislation on voting rights, an issue that was recently added to the Vice President's list of priorities. But a couple of key moderate Democrats still stand in the way of nationwide reform.

This episode: White House correspondents Scott Detrow and Ayesha Rascoe, and congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Vice President Harris, Texas Lawmakers Meet To Push Voting Reform

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CAROLINE: Hi, NPR. This is Caroline (ph) recording from Washington, D.C., where I just finished my first shift with the Duck Watch, a volunteer group that helps get wayward ducklings back into the Capitol Reflecting Pool, right down the street from NPR headquarters. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I have seen the ducklings around there. I didn't know there was a whole formal project. That's pretty cool. It is 2:40 Eastern on Tuesday, June 15.

CAROLINE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.

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AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Aw, that's really nice. She's protecting the ducklings. That's great.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: There has been a long-running effort to protect the ducks around the Capitol, but I didn't know it was so formalized as it is.

DETROW: (Laughter) Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: And Sue, big, big milestone. You're back in the Capitol booth today.

DAVIS: I am. I'm vaxxed and relaxed. I'm back in the Capitol, ready to talk to lawmakers in person once again.

DETROW: And the other big...

RASCOE: Vax girl summer.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: And I just want to note, we - we've all been, like, for a year-plus, saying - when can we do the podcast in person again? Sue, you and I over the weekend were the very first NPR people to do a segment in the studio at the same time, so box checked.

DAVIS: Box checked.

DETROW: Next step - doing it on the podcast.

DAVIS: It's weird. It's like, you know, it all ended really abruptly. We all - like, I had to go work from home really quickly. And I feel like we're all coming back in pretty abruptly, too.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: And it's good to be back.

DETROW: It is. So even as the great infrastructure negotiations continue, voting rights are becoming a bigger and bigger topic this year, especially for Democrats. They're very worried a string of new laws in Republican-controlled states that restrict voting access are putting democracy in danger. That's how big Democrats see the stakes as here. So Democratic lawmakers in Texas, as a reminder, recently blocked voting restrictions from passing. Today, they are on Capitol Hill meeting with U.S. Senate Democrats. They'll also meet with Vice President Kamala Harris tomorrow at the White House.

Sue, let's start at the Capitol. Tell us why these Texas lawmakers are here in D.C. to begin with.

DAVIS: Well, as you noted, Scott, they had at least a short-term success in Texas last month, in which they staged a walkout and deprived Republicans of the quorum they needed to pass a new restrictive voting rights bill in the state of Texas. And that sort of defiant act has made this group of lawmakers a bit of heroes right now to Democratic activists and Democratic lawmakers who think that voting rights should be a much bigger priority than it has been, certainly in the minds of lawmakers up here.

So they're up here in a bit of - you know, it's really - I don't want to dismiss it as much as, like, PR, but it really is just sort of a symbolic visit to say, like, hey, we're fighting for voting rights. Y'all need to be doing this, too. A group of five of them met behind closed doors with Senate Democrats today. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer came out, said they got some standing ovations in the meeting. He said that Democrats are going to meet again later this week to figure out what their strategy's going to be on voting rights.

And a couple of them are even meeting with the office of Senator Joe Manchin, who has obviously been a very critical swing vote, who isn't on board with the big, bold sort of legislative vision that Democrats want to put through.

RASCOE: Do we know why he wasn't at the lunch with Senate Democrats today? And this was the first lunch for the Senate Democrats in person in a long time, right?

DAVIS: That's right, another sign of things getting back to normal up here. Senate Democrats have a regular weekly meeting, but they've been doing it remote for most of the pandemic. Today was their first back-in-person meeting. As you noted, Manchin did not attend. I don't know why he didn't attend. I would say it's not unusual that senators come and go as they please in these things. They're not sort of mandatory attendance.

I could see the topic of today's meeting might be one in which he doesn't probably feel like he needs another lecture on. I mean, Manchin has been very public. Last - just last week - I mean, he's been very public about his position on all this all along, but he really doubled down on it last week on this issue of voting rights bills. It's already passed the House. It's called HR 1, and it's a very expansive federal legislation that would basically remake election laws and campaign finance laws. And all Republicans oppose it.

And Manchin wrote an op-ed that basically said he will not support it for the same reason that he opposes the Republican-led efforts in a lot of these states to change voting laws, in that if you want to inspire integrity in your elections, you need these to be bipartisan solutions. So I'm shorthanding his argument here. But it's basically - if you think what Republicans are doing in the states is wrong, then Democrats ramming through a Democrat-only voting legislation on the federal level is equally wrong and that neither of those efforts is going to have the collective end goal of making Americans feel like their elections are freer and fairer and more Democratic.

DETROW: Ayesha, these Texas Democrats are going to meet with Vice President Harris tomorrow at the White House. A reminder that Harris is now the Biden administration's point person for voting rights. What exactly is the scope of this charge? Is this all about convincing Congress to get something passed? Is this about countering bill after bill after bill being introduced in Republican-controlled states? What's Harris's goal?

RASCOE: So this is something that she asked to be in charge of. And the goal is to use her bully pulpit, the attention that she gets as vice president, to shine a light on these issues to make the case for voting rights. She's supposed to, you know, eventually do speeches, meet with people, meet with stakeholders and even maybe try to get people in the private sector to do things that would support voting rights - you know, whether it's giving people a day off to vote or somehow using their power because as has been - has happened, oftentimes, it's the private sector that has pushed for certain things or has been able to influence society, politicians more than necessarily just bipartisan reaching across the aisle. She is supposed to talk to lawmakers, too, though. She was in the Senate. It isn't clear, though, how much influence she's really going to have on, you know, someone like Senator Manchin or other moderates.

DETROW: Sue, I do want to ask you about something that a lot of Republican senators have been pointing out this week. As you mentioned, this is probably, at this point, the top issue in this churning debate on the progressive side of whether or not Senate Democrats should try and get rid of the filibuster, so they can pass bills with a bare majority and not have to have things blocked by Republicans over and over again. So a lot of Republicans are saying, oh, I see you've brought these Texas Democrats here to celebrate the fact that even though they are the minority in a legislature, they were able to block a bill from getting passed.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

DETROW: That doesn't quite mesh with you want me to throw out the filibuster.

DAVIS: Scott, are you suggesting that politicians are not always entirely intellectually consistent with their arguments for what they want?

DETROW: I would never. I would never say that.

DAVIS: I would never. Yeah, I mean, I think that's a really good point. And this is sort of a microcosm of the filibuster argument. Right? I mean, there is a frustration among Democrats that they can't get through much of any of their agenda because of the filibuster. But today, they're celebrating the use of minority rights to block a legislative agenda item that they don't support. I mean, there is a lot of history and merit for minority rights in legislative bodies. And this is the warning of this conversation of changing the Senate - is the unintended consequences of it, that they want to do it because they have very specific legislative items they want to get through.

But what comes after that? And what do you do to the chamber? And what does it do to the way we govern in this country if you blow it all up, especially if you do it quick and without sort of taking the long view on it? So - yeah, there was a - Senator John Cornyn - he's a Republican from Texas - was sort of making that point today. He's obviously not going to be meeting with those Texas Democrats, but I think that it has given Republicans a little bit of ammunition as well in their argument in protecting the filibuster.

DETROW: All right. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk a lot more about the state of these voting rights bills in Congress.

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DETROW: And we're back. And before we keep talking about Congress, Ayesha, what else do we know about this White House meeting tomorrow for the same group of Texas lawmakers?

RASCOE: Yeah. We know that, as we said earlier, Harris - she's the point person on this issue. She's supposed to meet with these Democrats. It's not really clear, like, what exactly is going to come out of this meeting. Harris is trying to build support among stakeholders and, basically, build pressure to get something done. But it's not really super tangible at this point what the outcomes could be.

DETROW: And this is just such, like, a marathon of her various point-person things being high-profile because she goes right from a trip from Guatemala and Mexico right into the beginning of this bus tour she's going to be doing to try and boost vaccine awareness and convince people to get vaccines. And then the very next day, it's a voting rights thing. So it's like all of her items one day in a row. It's kind of, like, a high-profile meeting right now.

RASCOE: And all of them are, like, very difficult. Maybe the vaccinations...

DETROW: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Aren't quite as difficult. But, like, immigration...

DETROW: But that's still hard.

RASCOE: ...And voting rights (laughter) - they're very tough to get done, and they're not things that get done overnight.

DETROW: So, Sue, speaking of things not getting done overnight, the motto of the United States Senate...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIS: (Laughter) That's my beat.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: ...Bring us up to speed on what the timeline is for the various high-profile voting rights bills that are in front of the Senate.

DAVIS: Well, there's a couple of things. The House has already passed the bill that's known as HR 1. That is this massive overhaul of elections and campaign finance laws and anti-corruption practices. It's a behemoth of a bill. And it's Democrats - what they say is their No. 1 priority. The Senate is going to take up their version of that bill next week. It's probably going to be slightly different, but the core of it will remain the same, you know?

This is one of those things that we know it's a bit of a foregone conclusion. Every Senate Republican opposes this legislation. Manchin's on the record saying he's not going to support it. So we know it's going to fail, but it is at least going to give the Senate an opportunity to have this big voting rights debate next week. And what I think that leaders are trying to do here is at least move the needle of public opinion a little bit and see if they can sort of increase the pressure on people like Manchin, although I don't know how much pressure you can apply to Joe Manchin to get him to change his mind 'cause he's been pretty definitive about this. And then they're going to have to move on.

Another interesting question outside of this big behemoth bill is voting rights legislation. There's also separate legislation to update the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would reinstate some of the protections and preclearances that the Supreme Court threw out in - back in 2013. Joe Manchin supports that bill. Republicans like Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska support that bill. They have the votes in the House to probably pass that bill. So I think once we get over the Senate vote next week, they're going to pivot to this other legislation. And one of the questions is - could that possibly get the support it needs? Although I think there's good reason to be skeptical. And that seems like a maybe more likely vehicle to get some traction in Congress because it has what HR 1 and S1 (ph) don't have. And that's at least some bipartisan buy-in.

DETROW: But then it's just another version of the same cast of characters being chased in the hallways - hallways you are once again walking through - to ask whether they can vote it, right? I mean, we're talking about the same small group of Senate Republicans who might be persuaded but probably won't be?

DAVIS: Totally. And look. Like, take a step back for a minute - there is - to look at what's happening here. Republicans are very successfully, on the state level, advancing laws to change or restrict the way that their states conduct elections. Now, there's a lot of Democratic criticism in there. Obviously, Democrats are attacking all of these bills. Not all are as controversial as Democrats would lead you to believe. Even some election specialists say that there's good things in parts of these bills, but it's the politics in which they're being passed that have really divided the two parties.

DETROW: Right. And just to say it out loud in this podcast - because we talked about it a lot before and we need to say it here, too - it's the fact that a lot of the motivation for a lot of these bills is the false, false, false claim pushed by former President Trump that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

DAVIS: Sure. But, like, here's the brass tacks of it, right? Republicans are succeeding at actually changing the laws, and Democrats are not.

DETROW: Right.

DAVIS: And Democrats on the federal level don't have the votes today. They don't seem to have the votes at any point in the horizon. And if you believe and you take people like Speaker Pelosi and Chuck Schumer at their word, this is a five-alarm fire for the future of democracy. So there's a lot of frustration in the Democratic Party that they are basically right now capable of doing nothing to counteract what's happening in the states. And I think you're hearing it more and more certainly from progressives in Congress who think they're squandering a little bit of their political capital, focused so much on infrastructure all the time that they should be - you know, get this infrastructure thing done. And, like, let's really focus the weight of the party on voting rights and election reform.

DETROW: A lot of stuff waiting for Joe Biden when he gets back from Europe.

RASCOE: Yeah, busy days (laughter).

DETROW: So we're going to wrap up this conversation. But on that note, we will be back in your feeds tomorrow, talking about everything that happened at that big summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin that's happening in Geneva. We'll probably be a little late in your feeds because even though they are several hours ahead of us on the time zones, this is expected to be a pretty long meeting. So we'll talk to you tomorrow about that.

For now, I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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