Voting rights activists prepare for filibuster fight in Senate

This week, the House passed a sweeping election reform and voting rights bill, but the legislation faces a steep climb in the Senate. Democratic lawmakers are facing a tough decision as the For the People Act heads to the Senate floor: protect voting rights or protect the filibuster rule. CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns and CBS News reporter Adam Brewster, who is covering special elections and the midterms, joined CBSN to discuss what is next for the bill and the limitations of President Biden's executive powers.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: This week, the House passed a sweeping election reform and voting rights act. But the bill faces a steep climb in the Senate. The action comes after the 2020 election was met with record voter turnout that led to the Democrats' takeover of the White House and the Senate.

Voter access was a central issue, especially in states, like Georgia and Arizona, where the presidential and Senate races were tight. For more on what's next for the People Act, let's bring in Caitlin Huey-Burns. She is CBSN's political reporter. And Adam Brewster is a reporter covering special elections and the midterms for CBS News. So Caitlin, let's begin with you. What exactly does this bill include?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: Well, this is a very wide bill that the basic tenets of it are that it creates a national voter registration-- automatic voter registration. It also implements vote by mail across the country-- absentee voting. It also puts limits on what states can do to eliminate people from their voting rolls. It also increases federal funds for election security but also puts some reforms into the redistricting process.

This is something-- this whole bill is something that Democrats tried to pass in the previous administration but came against the roadblock of a Republican-led Senate. Now, they're facing similar challenges. Even though Democrats control the upper chamber, they control it by a very narrow majority. And they would need more support from Republicans in order to pass this in the Senate.

But what's really key and why people say that it's needed now and why it's front and center at this point is because we've seen action in the states to change voter laws after the 2020 elections. This week, we heard arguments in the Supreme Court focused on a key section of the Voting Rights Act. So this has become something that Democrats and voting rights activists have been really focused on in light of those other efforts.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Right. Adam, Republicans are not in favor of this measure at all. This is the party that it had been telling us during the last election how flawed the whole system is. You would think they would be in favor of reform. What don't they like about this type of reform?

ADAM BREWSTER: Well, this reform in particular, Anne-Marie, that they have an issue with is they say this amounts to a federal takeover of state-run elections. They say that this doesn't allow states to take steps to put in election integrity or election security measures that their constituents believe are needed.

And we've seen the Republicans united about this. They spoke about it-- against it at CPAC last week, the Conservative Conference down in Florida. Former Vice President Mike Pence came out and spoke for the first time since he left the vice presidency against HR1.

And some of the measures they don't like are some of the things Caitlin brought up requiring states to allow no excuse absentee voting, requiring automatic voter registration, having ballots count a certain period after election day if they arrive through the mail. There are just things in this that Republicans disagree with in terms of the elections should be conducted. And they say this just takes power away from the states.

What it would really do-- it doesn't set a ceiling on what states can do. It just raises the floor in terms of what states have to require for an early voting period for allowing anyone who wants to mail ballot to cast one and certain other provisions like that. But they say this takes too much power away from the states to oversee their elections.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So as mentioned in your guy's article, activists are preparing for a fight over the filibuster. Stephen Spaulding, the senior counsel for public policy and a senior advisor at Common Cause, says the majority will be faced with a choice-- protect voting rights or protect the filibuster rule. So Caitlin, why does it all come down to those two?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: Well, Democrats have quickly realized that their power in Washington is extremely limited considering that they just have 50 seats in the Senate. Of course, Kamala Harris is a tie-breaking vote but still not the 60 needed to actually pass legislation without it being blocked by the filibuster rules.

We interviewed James Clyburn yesterday who's the Whip on the House side, a key ally of President Biden's. And he said, look, Democrats don't actually control the Senate. The filibuster does. So you've seen some lawmakers and activists, especially, really focus on the filibuster rules, which requires 60 votes to advance legislation, as something to really focus on here.

Now, as we're talking about the COVID bill that's going through this week, that's done through a separate process reconciliation, which we've talked about, which doesn't require 60 votes. But you can't do that for something like a voting rights bill. And so Democrats and activists have said that, you know, in order to pass key priorities that the party has, something has to be done about the Senate rules. Otherwise, there's not going to be the opportunity to actually pass what they want to.

But it is also important to note that not all Democrats are united around reforming or abolishing the filibuster. Joe Manchin, of course, is someone to watch. And he says that he is still very much opposed to reforming it.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So Adam, does President Biden play a role here? Is there anything that he could do to push this along?

ADAM BREWSTER: In terms of voting rights, the power of the presidency are a bit limited. There are some things he can do with requiring federal agencies to be involved in voter registration. There are measures he could take about beefing up cybersecurity in elections and using his Department of Justice, allocating resources to make sure that voting rights laws are enforced.

But once you get past those things-- and not that those are insignificant. But it's just limited in what he can do. When it comes to allowing a certain amount of early in-person voting or allowing access to mail ballots or requiring automatic or same-day voter registration or the redistricting reform that HR1 also tackles, those are things that would have to come through legislation.

And that's why you might see some pressure on President Biden to take some actions to, at least, show that there is something being done. But most of this needs to be done by legislation and at the state level too, right? We've talked a lot about the efforts being done in Republican legislatures on some of the voting restriction laws that they're passing.

There are also a lot of laws around the country that deal with expanding voter access that are being passed through, whether that deals with the rights of former prisoners, restoring their voting rights, or whether that deals with changing voter registration laws or allowing more people to vote by mail. That is also happening in states around the country.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Let me ask Cait. Why is the federal legislation so imperative? Last week, we talked to both of you guys about Republican efforts to restrict voting access across the country. Caitlin, would the For the People Act, which is what it's being known as, overrule those proposed laws?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: Well, in some cases when it comes to mail-in voting or how states conduct their voter rolls, that could have an impact. But the real concern that people have has to do with the Voting Rights Act and this new proposal that's been around in Congress called the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

And so what that does, that's separate from the bill that we're talking about. That addresses a key provision that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 that said that states that had a history of discrimination had to get federal approval to change any voting laws.

So remember, last week, we were talking about these voting proposals-- changes in Georgia. Georgia was one of those states that before the Supreme Court struck down that ruling, they had to seek federal approval to make any changes to their voting laws.

So with that struck down, they can go forward with these proposed changes if they want to and if they get it passed and signed by their governor. So what activists and lawmakers have been really focused on in terms of that provision is on this John Lewis Voting Rights Act which would resurrect that provision.

And to Adam's point because the administration is limited in what it can actually do, you're going to see people really focused on that. And Jim Clyburn told us that he expects that to be passed later on probably around Labor Day. But that could also, of course, face a filibuster in the Senate.

And remember a few years ago when former President Obama gave the eulogy for John Lewis, he came out and kind of made some news in that eulogy by saying that he supported eliminating the filibuster when it comes to voting rights because he said it was, quote, "a relic of Jim Crow," of course, referring to the ways in which the filibuster was used to try and thwart civil rights. I'm going back to Strom Thurmond.

So that's something that kind of has been at the center of this. And that's why this clash between voting rights and the filibusters is likely coming to a head at some point.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah, Adam, do you want to add to that?

ADAM BREWSTER: Well, on the filibuster point, the man who's currently in the White House, President Biden has said that he doesn't support getting rid of the filibuster. The White House press Secretary was asked yesterday if he's changed his mind in light of the fact that it could help Democrats pass voting rights legislation, pass economic issues, pass labor laws-- all of these things that Democrats want to do and campaigned on. And she said that he has not changed his position. He wants to work with members of both parties.

We'll see what happens as this goes on and on. But election-- these election issue-- this issue over voting-- this issue over election integrity-- both parties are going to be talking about this a lot going into the 2022 midterms. I wouldn't expect this to go anywhere once the calendar flips to 2022.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Well, Caitlin, Adam, I'm really glad you guys are on this. Sometimes it's not the sexiest thing to talk about voting rights. But there are changes happening in individual states that wherever you live, you may not be aware of it until the next election rolls around. So Caitlin, Adam, thank you very, very much.

ADAM BREWSTER: Thank you.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS: Thank you.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: And, of course, you can read Caitlin and Adam's full report on voting rights and the tough choice to potentially kill the filibuster rule online. Just head to cbsnews.com.