Democrats know that their election overhaul has no chance as long as the filibuster exists, but they are eager to show that all that stands in its way are Republicans.
Democrats and progressive activists who have been working for months on a sweeping voting rights bill quickly embraced on Thursday a new, far narrower plan suddenly put forward by Senator Joe Manchin III, their party’s sole holdout on the issue.
Their decision to do so did nothing to improve the chances that the legislation could get through the Senate, but it reflected another significant goal for Democrats: uniting the party around what it has billed as its highest priority and showing that, were it not for Republican opposition and the filibuster, the elections overhaul would become law.
Much to the growing consternation of Senate Republicans, the alternative ideas put forward by Mr. Manchin — a centrist from West Virginia and the only Democrat who has refused to support what is known as S. 1 — quickly gained traction with progressive Democrats and activists, most notably Stacey Abrams, the voting rights champion in Georgia.
On Thursday, she praised his plan, even though it is more limited in scope than the original Democratic measure. The proposal would make Election Day a holiday, require 15 days of early voting and ban partisan gerrymandering, among other steps.
“What Senator Manchin is putting forward are some basic building blocks that we need to ensure that democracy is accessible, no matter your geography,” Ms. Abrams, a former candidate for Georgia governor, said on CNN.
Given her national standing on the issue, her endorsement was a huge boost for Mr. Manchin’s approach — though it only hardened Republican opposition to a measure they have made clear that they intend to block at all costs. They see Ms. Abrams as both a lightning rod with conservatives and a real threat on election policy, whose efforts helped President Biden win her state’s electoral votes and hand Democrats two crucial Georgia Senate seats that gave them the majority.
Senator Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who is a leading opponent of the Democratic bill, said at a news conference on Thursday that her enthusiasm for Mr. Manchin’s proposal transformed it into the Abrams alternative.
But as far as Senate Democrats are concerned, it is Mr. Manchin whose support is most important. The reason is the magic number of 50.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has hesitated to bring top Democratic priorities to the floor this year without the backing of all 50 senators. Given the Senate’s even partisan split, it takes every Democrat and Democratic-leaning independent, plus the tiebreaking power of Vice President Kamala Harris, to guarantee a majority. Then, if Republicans mount a filibuster, Democrats can point out that they had the votes to approve legislation, bolstering their argument that the Senate rules are being abused by Republicans and unfairly impeding highly popular policy changes.
With a test vote on the measure looming next week, Mr. Manchin’s opposition to the voting rights measure threatened to be a major embarrassment for Democrats. Republicans were eager to pounce and proclaim that with Mr. Manchin on their side of the vote tally, it was the opposition to the bill that was bipartisan, not the legislation itself.
So if Mr. Manchin could be brought on board by granting him some pride of authorship on provisions Democrats deemed reasonable and worthwhile, they appeared more than ready to agree. As Mr. Schumer took procedural steps to set up a vote on the elections bill as early as Tuesday, a spokesman was quick to note that the measure being put on the floor could “act as the vehicle for the voting rights legislation being discussed with Senator Manchin.”
With Mr. Manchin’s support, Democrats could then claim at least a symbolic victory, if not a legislative one, when Republicans block the bill through a filibuster.
And a filibuster there will be. With Mr. Manchin suddenly within reach for the Democrats, Republicans on Thursday escalated their attacks on the voting rights bill, portraying it as a power-grabbing abomination. They were not impressed by the West Virginian’s tinkering.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, assailed Mr. Manchin’s approach, pointedly noting in a statement that it was backed by Ms. Abrams.
“It still retains S. 1’s rotten core,” he said.
Though some Republicans had previously expressed willingness to talk to Mr. Manchin about a potential elections compromise, it seemed impossible to imagine even a few — let alone 10 — of them siding with Democrats on a measure that was eliciting such wrath. Mr. Blunt indicated there was no conceivable Democratic bill he could support.
In a show of the depth of the party’s opposition and outrage, 15 other Republicans joined Mr. McConnell at a news conference on Thursday. One by one, they impugned the measure and the Democrats for backing it, vowing to defeat it.
“The mother of all power grabs is going to fail,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who like most of his colleagues denounced the legislation as a transparent attempt by Democrats to gain advantage in elections and permanently install themselves in power.
“It is radical,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican. “It is extreme. It is dangerous. It is scary.”
All year long, Mr. McConnell has privately urged Senate Republicans to “take care of Joe,” according to people who have heard him, to help keep Mr. Manchin — his party’s leading opponent of eliminating the filibuster — on board against weakening the procedural tool. But that solicitude evidently extends only so far.
Mr. McConnell angered Mr. Manchin by employing the filibuster against the proposal to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol riot. Now, he is promising to use the tactic against what could become Mr. Manchin’s voting measure.
For Democrats who only a week ago had been down over Mr. Manchin’s declared opposition to S. 1, his sudden involvement in shaping a compromise was a very welcome turn of events.
“I’ve been so impressed by the work that Senator Manchin has put into this the last couple of weeks,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon and a chief author of S. 1, told reporters on a conference call organized by progressive activists backing the legislation. “He is deeply engaged.”
With Democrats willing to incorporate Mr. Manchin’s ideas into the legislation and excise parts to which he objects, they now hope that he will join his colleagues next week in support of a procedural vote to open debate on an elections bill. Republicans are on record saying they do not want the bill to see a minute of floor time and intend to block even that initial step.
Democrats will then need to decide how to proceed. While Mr. Manchin has expressed new openness to backing a broad elections bill, he has also said repeatedly that he will never vote to change the filibuster rules. That presents a problem, since no elections bill is likely to escape a Republican filibuster, leaving that measure and others essentially dead at the hands of the procedural tactic.
The hope of top Democrats and activists is that the Republican opposition to the election measure, the Capitol riot commission and a blockaded pay equity bill then helps persuade Mr. Manchin and a handful of other reluctant Democrats that the party’s agenda and possibly its electoral future are imperiled by the filibuster. And they want to be able to note that the stalled bills all earned a majority of 50 votes or more.