If Pres. Biden and Congressional Democrats act quickly, they can still pass the Build Back Better bill and protect voting rights in time to save our democracy before the November elections.
Last December I was part of a small contingent of New Mexicans that met with two of NM Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s top staffers. We advocated for:
- the elimination of all remaining sections of the Build Back Better (BBB) Act to which Sens. Manchin and/or Sinema still objected; and
- the inclusion of the Freedom to Vote Act, which Manchin and Sinema support, in the BBB bill with a budget item for implementation so it meets (at least in part) the reconciliation process requirements.
While they considered our viewpoint, Lujan’s lieutenants rejected our proposal. For one, they did not believe voting rights belonged in the BBB bill and, rather, should stand alone. Last week that strategy failed when Senate Republicans along with Manchin and Sinema defeated a stand-alone voting rights act by rejecting a change in the filibuster which would have permitted the adoption of the bill.
How To Pass BBB and Voting Rights
Since the Democrats’ previous attempts to pass the BBB and the Freedom to Vote acts have failed, here’s how they should now proceed to have a better chance of success:
1. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain has to make amends for his harsh remarks regarding Sen. Manchin’s rejection of the BBB legislation last year. Manchin is reported to be very upset about being publicly called out by Klain after the senator scrapped the bill.
2. Pres. Biden needs to sit down with Manchin and Sinema and together agree on a BBB reconciliation bill in the range of $1.7 trillion. This would include the Freedom to Vote and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts which the senators already support. The stand-alone voting rights act couldn’t overcome the filibuster. Inserting voting provisions into the BBB reconciliation bill provides the only chance to enact them. That is because “reconciliation legislation limits Senate debate on the bill to 20 hours and therefore, is not subject to the filibuster,” thus allowing a simple majority to pass the bill.
3. Senate Democrats must rename the bill. Labeling the legislation the Lewis-Manchin Build Back Better Act would recognize and reward Sen. Manchin for his central role in both drafting and enacting this historic legislation. It might also increase Manchin’s determination to have the bill enacted and his name enshrined in history. Additionally, the new name would acknowledge the late Rep. John Lewis’s valiant work in advancing voting rights. And, perhaps most importantly, the fresh title would help to unite the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party in their efforts to win the mid-term elections and save our democracy.
Overcoming the Obstacles to Enacting Build Back Better
A major hurdle to enacting the BBB bill is the requirement that the Senate parliamentarian determine whether sections of the bill meet the requirements for including them in the reconciliation legislation.
However, the parliamentarian’s ruling is only advisory. So, if she determines that voting rights provisions are “extraneous” to the BBB act under the Byrd Rule guiding reconciliation, and must be eliminated, the Democrats would have to override her decision in order to include those provisions in the final bill. In fact, the “law gives the presiding officer – and only the presiding officer – the initial authority to determine if a disputed provision violates the Byrd Rule.” In this case, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the presiding officer and would rule in all likelihood that the voting rights provisions are not extraneous.
Arguing that voting rights are not extraneous, Democrats could assert that inclusion of those provisions in the BBB act is essential to safeguarding major portions of the bill from being overturned by the next Congress. Without protecting the right to vote, millions of Americans’ voting rights are now being severely compromised by state legislatures. That could radically change the composition of the next Congress which then might very well vote to eliminate the budget changes implemented by the BBB legislation, or to refuse to appropriate funding for those changes.
Democrats Must Play Hardball
Sen. Mitch McConnell ignored Senate rules and procedures to deny President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court a hearing on his nomination in the spring of 2016, many months prior to the fall election. Then, when President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch was stymied by the Democrats’ filibuster in 2017, McConnell changed Senate rules to confirm Gorsuch by a simple majority. Subsequently, he ignored established procedures and rammed through the Senate the confirmation of Trump’s nominee by a simple majority right before the 2020 election.
Now Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democrats must play hardball as well. Bend Senate rules just as McConnell has done to secure what he wanted. Do whatever it takes to include voting rights protection in the BBB Act and get the bill to President Biden’s desk by the end of February. It may well save the Democrats’ control of Congress and Biden’s presidency as well as our democracy. Call Schumer’s office and your senators (202-224-3121) and demand they act now!
Bruce Berlin, J.D.
A retired, public sector ethics attorney, Berlin is the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America (See breakingbigmoneysgrip.com.), the founder of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics, a former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow, and the founder and former executive director of The Trinity Forum for International Security and Conflict Resolution. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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