Democrats And Republicans Are In An Existential Crisis Over Ballot Access : The NPR Politics Podcast Today Democrats' massive elections overhaul bill is all but set to stall out in the Senate, but the party's wish-list was never expected to gain Republican support. That's because the two parties are only getting further apart on how conduct free and fair elections.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Democrats And Republicans Are In An Existential Crisis Over Ballot Access

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ROTEM: Hi. My name is Rotem (ph) from Pittsburgh, Pa. Our local makerspace has reopened, and after almost a year of watching blacksmithing videos online, I'm about to pull a 2,000-degree piece of metal out of the forge for the first time. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:07 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, June 22.

ROTEM: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But hopefully, this old car part will be a brand-new knife. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: Some great sound there.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Some good ambi (ph) - that's a radio-quality ambi sound (laughter).

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

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

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: Democrats have been pushing this sweeping voting rights bill to overhaul elections, and it's all but guaranteed to fall apart in the Senate today. The bill would create new federal mandates to make it easier to vote, toughen campaign finance disclosure laws and enact new ethics requirements on every branch of government. So Sue and Mara, this bill is essentially a wish list for Democrats. Republicans were never going to support it, especially not when GOP-led states have been trying to instate more restrictive voting measures. But all of this does show how far apart the two parties are on voting rights issues.

DAVIS: It does, and I think it shows that the parties have been far apart for some time. I think it's important to remember that this legislation did not come about after the 2020 election. This is something that Democrats prioritized back in 2019. And a lot of it was born out of a response to the Trump administration and the abuses of power that Democrats saw happening there. So from the beginning, this was never really intended to be a bipartisan effort. As you said, it was a Democratic wish list of all the ways they would not just remake elections but remake government in a lot of ways. And so there was never really this idea that this was going to be some kind of big legislative effort that Republicans could buy in on. But Democrats in the House and Senate have given it that designation - HR 1, S 1. Usually, parties do this for their biggest statement bills. And Democrats with this legislation are saying this is a top priority for our party, even if it doesn't really stand a chance of becoming law anytime soon.

LIASSON: Except since the 2020 election, doing something about ballot access has become an existential project for Democrats.

DAVIS: Right.

LIASSON: And restricting access to the polls has become an existential project for Republicans, especially in battleground states. So it's actually - something that was originally a messaging bill has become the vehicle for this life-or-death battle from both parties' point of view about the future of their parties and possibly the future of democracy, so it's become a really big thing.

KHALID: You know, the particular bill that we're talking about, it really has no chances of going anywhere. But there is this separate sort of compromise bill being proposed by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and it was even endorsed by former President Barack Obama. But I should probably put a compromise in quotes because I don't think any Republican senator has actually shown a willingness to jump on board with it.

LIASSON: It's an intramural compromise with Democrats because first, you got to get all the Democrats.

KHALID: (Laughter) Right.

LIASSON: Right.

KHALID: Within the Democratic Party.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Exactly. Exactly. So what is exactly in that bill? And is it possible that the Democrats in Congress might be able to pass that separate idea, even if it is slightly more narrow?

DAVIS: You know, Manchin made a lot of news, I think it was last week or the week before, when he came out and said he would not support advancing this legislation on a partisan basis. His argument is essentially that when one party changes election rules, it undermines overall confidence in the integrity of that election. But he's not really opposed to a lot of the substance in the bill. What he has put forward is sort of his own wish list of how he would modify or change this legislation with the goal of trying to bring some Republicans on board.

So in his proposal, he includes things like national voter ID laws, something that has always been very controversial, heavily supported historically by Republicans, who say it's important to election integrity. Democrats have traditionally been more hesitant about voter ID laws because they think it disproportionately makes it harder for poor people and people of color to vote. And that was a bit of an olive branch by Manchin on his part. As you said, there isn't a lot of Republican interest in engaging in this legislation. I think it's really important to understand that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is vehemently opposed to this bill. He has already promised that no Republican will support it.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The Senate is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten, and that's exactly why this body exists. Today the Senate is going to fulfill our founding purpose - stop the partisan power grab and reject S 1.

KHALID: And what's the justification he's giving, Sue?

DAVIS: That is - there's a multifaceted answer to that. I mean, if you take a really big step back and look at it from the big picture, I just think Republicans don't believe that the federal government should be exerting this much control in how elections are run. You know, states have a lot of say in their processes and how they do it, and they want to leave it that way. I think people like McConnell think several of the provisions of this bill are constitutionally questionable and would be challenged in the courts, certainly the way that they want to change the way things like how we draw congressional district lines in the House, many of the campaign finance provisions.

And then again, as I said, remember; this kind of came out of a response to the Trump administration and Trump era politics. And for Republicans to get on board with this proposal, it would be sort of a tacit acknowledgment that Democrats had a point that things were not good then. And I think as we've talked about at length on this podcast, the loyalty to Donald Trump and the resistance to acknowledging that anything he has said or done is wrong, especially when it pertains to the 2020 election, is real. It's a real political pressure, so I don't think Republicans see any political incentive to warming to a Democratic elections and ethics bill.

LIASSON: That - Democrats would say that explanation of Republicans' objections is extremely charitable.

DAVIS: Yeah, they would.

LIASSON: You know, when (laughter) - because what Democrats see is that these efforts in the states that HR 1 is trying to protect Democrats against are designed to put a thumb on the scale and make sure that Republicans can never lose a close race. Hundreds of bills have been proposed that would either restrict access to the ballot or give partisan state legislatures more control over the vote-counting process. And in more than a dozen states, these bills have actually been signed into law. And a lot of these laws make it easier for Republican state legislatures to overturn election results to much - there's a much lower bar to finding, quote-unquote, "fraud." And they see this as existential because if these laws are allowed to go forward, Democrats can never win a close race. So I think that the Republicans weren't going to vote for anything. And you could say that Joe Manchin kind of smoked them out and revealed their true motives. Even a bill that includes voter ID and the ability to purge voter rolls - two of Republicans' biggest talking points about how to prevent fraud - they don't want to take that either.

DAVIS: Mara is absolutely right in that there is zero good faith that Democrats see in Republicans' arguments against this bill because of what's happening in the states. And I think that is even further indication of why I say nobody thinks there's going to be a big compromise breakthrough on this because Democrats see this legislation as so important, and they see the Republican Party right now being almost anti-democratic - small D. And they don't want to engage with that. The challenge here is, obviously, it means that nothing really gets done because they're nowhere near getting the 10 Republican votes that they would need to support something like this. I think it's more about trying to make this a central issue and is certainly a base-driving issue for Democrats ahead of the midterms.

LIASSON: Right. And you can see how quickly Democrats joined, especially Democratic leaders and people like Stacey Abrams and Barack Obama - how quickly they embraced the slimmed-down Manchin alternative because they just want to get something done. This is not about holding out for their big, long wish list. They don't even have the votes for that. And I've been in the White House briefing room and asked Jen Psaki this question, as have many of my colleagues. You don't have the votes, so what are you going to do? Well, they've got stepped-up Department of Justice, you know, oversight into voting rights. But now the White House has kind of lowered the bar. As Jen Psaki said the other day, well, we're going to measure, is the Democratic Party united? In other words, the vote on the Hill will show if all Democrats are on the same page on this. So that's how their goal has devolved. They're not even hoping for some kind of a bipartisan outcome. They're just trying to keep all the Democrats on board.

KHALID: Of course, even if all the Democrats are united, there is, of course, the question of, can anything actually still get through Congress? And that is a great segue. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about what this moment means for President Biden's agenda and the fight over the filibuster.

And we're back. And yesterday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki made it clear to reporters that the administration does not expect this voting rights legislation to advance but that it is still important for Democrats to have a united front on the issue and said the president is not giving up.

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JEN PSAKI: It's important to remember that this has been a 60-year battle to make voting more accessible, more available to Americans across the country. And our effort, the president's effort to continue that fight doesn't stop tomorrow at all. This will be a fight of his presidency.

KHALID: You know, progressives I've been speaking with this morning are incredibly frustrated. They feel like the president is not putting the full strength of the presidency behind voting rights. And I'm curious, you know, what do you all make of this? What do you make of what the White House is saying about this being a priority?

DAVIS: You know, political capital is a finite thing. And the Biden administration in this first half a year or so has really focused most of his political capital on pandemic recovery and trying to get things like his infrastructure passed through. He hasn't put the same sort of power of the bully pulpit behind the voting rights question. And yes, I do think you're starting to see some frustration, especially in Congress, about this because these infrastructure talks have just drug on and on and on. And I don't think Democrats feel like they're sort of getting as much out of it as they should be politically and that they're losing some focus on what could be a very big issue.

LIASSON: Also, presidents - I think if you talked to people at the White House, they would say the bully pulpit isn't what it used to be.

DAVIS: Yeah.

LIASSON: And Joe Biden can talk in Tulsa about voting rights being kind of the civil rights issue of our time. He can direct the Justice Department to make this a priority. He can say that he's going to fight like heck for this. He doesn't have the votes. And that's - you know, I don't know how progressives are planning to convince Joe Manchin to vote with them, but Joe Biden doesn't have a magic wand. And the problem for Democrats here is they just don't have the votes. They failed in 2020 to win state legislatures, so they have no way to stop this in the states. They don't have - maybe they don't even have 50 votes in the Senate. They certainly don't have enough - 50 votes to change the filibuster, which is what it would take to pass a bill like this with Democratic votes only. So they're in a pretty tough position. They can raise public awareness, hope to generate a public backlash, a kind of grassroots backlash, and hope that the thing that they have going for them all across the country is that there's simply more Democratic voters out there than Republicans and hope that they'll actually turn out in humongous numbers in 2022 because that's what it's going to take to win in some of these states. You can't just win a close race if you're a Democrat now. You have to win in a landslide.

KHALID: So it sounds like, Mara, you don't see this as being a tipping point for Democrats to necessarily change filibuster rules. I mean, you see this as being a long game for Democrats. They just need to win more elections. Filibuster isn't going anywhere.

LIASSON: Well, I think that's up to Joe Manchin. You know, two interesting things happened to Joe Manchin. I want to hear what Sue thinks about this. First, he was really disappointed that the January 6 commission was not a bipartisan effort. Republicans shot it down. He believes in bipartisanship. I don't think it's just his political brand in West Virginia. I think he really believes in it.

Now, here, he's offering this compromise version of HR 1, which includes two big things that Republicans have always said were the answers to fraud - voter ID and being able to purge the voter rolls. And they dismissed that out of hand. Do those two rejections change Joe Manchin's view of the filibuster? I tend to doubt it, but what he's doing is he's saying that he is OK with Republicans having a veto over the entire Biden agenda.

DAVIS: And it's not just Manchin. You know, we talk about him a lot, but there is a skeptical group of moderates in the Senate who aren't quite where the left would like them to be. Another one, obviously, is Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. She just wrote a big op-ed in The Washington Post last night that is, again, infuriating progressives but basically saying she will never support blowing up the filibuster if it means advancing something on party lines, that that is long-term bad for the country. So even if we lived in a world right now where the filibuster didn't exist, the bottom line is Democrats don't even have the simple majority they need to get this bill through the Senate.

KHALID: Well, I am sure that we will continue to talk plenty about voting rights in the next few years, if not even longer.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

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

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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