Senate Democrats are expected to force votes on a series of election bills, setting up a showdown with Republicans who are all but guaranteed to block their efforts to enact the most expansive overhaul of the electoral process in a generation.
Democrats have tried for months to pass a sweeping bill, known as the For the People Act. The measure would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process, curbing the influence of big money in politics, limiting the partisan considerations in the drawing of congressional districts and expanding options for casting a ballot.
But Republicans blocked the bill from debate in June, forcing Democrats back to the drawing board.
Though their latest effort on Wednesday is doomed to fail, that's also the point. They are looking to show that Republicans will not waver in their opposition to voting and election legislation, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called “a solution looking for a problem.”
That could help make a case to moderates in the Democratic Party that there is little chance of making headway on a key issue for the party unless changes are made to Senate procedural rules that require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
“If we think we can do something tonight or tomorrow that moves the ball forward then we are going to do it,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said Tuesday.
When exactly the bills will be called to the floor was unclear Tuesday as the chamber slogged through a series of late-night votes that will pave the way for Democrats’ big-ticket spending goals. But Democrats said they nonetheless intend to take action on the measures before lawmakers split town this week for their August recess.
“I assume it's something they think they'll benefit from talking about over the break,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “They still won't get a different result.”
Party leaders have said passing voting legislation is a top priority that would serve as a powerful counterbalance to a wave of new restrictive voting laws approved in Republican-controlled states following the 2020 election.
But the effort stalled out in the Senate months ago.
Liberal activists have advocated for the elimination of the filibuster, though a handful of moderate Democrats, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have rejected such an approach, denying Democrats the votes needed to make the change.
That's where the series of votes on election legislation comes in.
“These are important points to build a case that Republicans are going to filibuster everything and are bad-faith actors on this topic,” said Adam Bozzi, a longtime Senate aide who is now helping lead a $30 million campaign to build support for the bill.
The planned votes also would come as President Joe Biden has faced increasing pressure from the party's base to get more involved in the fight over voting legislation.
Many activists say Biden has only paid lip service to the issue, instead prioritizing a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which the Senate approved Tuesday.
With that done, they hope he will be more engaged.
“The White House must now prioritize voting rights legislation with the same level of urgency and commitment as the bipartisan infrastructure bill," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Tuesday. “Time is running out."
Though once an area where there could be bipartisan compromise, election laws have become an increasingly partisan flashpoint after former President Donald Trump falsely blamed voting fraud for his 2020 election loss. Republican and Democratic election officials across the country certified the outcome and Trump's own attorney general said he saw no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
But it's also proven difficult for Senate Democrats to unify their own caucus around the issue. Manchin initially balked at voting for the bill, though he agreed to do so after Senate leaders pledged to work with him to narrow the measure's focus.
After weeks of work, they neared completion of a bill. But that's not what they plan to vote on Wednesday.
Instead, they are expected to take a piecemeal approach. First, Democrats will likely call for a vote on the For the People Act, which they expect Republicans to reject.
Then they are expected to take up popular provisions from the overarching bill, which would limit partisan gerrymandering and force so-called dark money groups to disclose their donors, which will be broken off into two separate bills that Republicans are also expected to block.
“It’s publicly proving that the Republicans are going to obstruct everything,” said Fred Wertheimer, the founder of the nonprofit group Democracy 21, who helped write the initial bill. “It sets the stage for when they come back (from recess) and figure out how to move forward."
Meanwhile, time is of the essence if Democrats want to get the measure signed into law before 2022 midterm elections.
“There is a tight deadline for getting all this done,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga.