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Democrats are looking for their way forward on voting rights

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Democrats are looking for their way forward on voting rights. President Biden this week joined calls to change Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation, and today he's set to head to Capitol Hill to try and drum up new support to move a couple of bills forward. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin talked of the importance to ballot access.

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DICK DURBIN: The greatest possible participation of the greatest number of voters, then let them decide on issue after issue.

MARTINEZ: In the coming days, the Senate will answer a major question - how far will Democrats go to take up their voting rights legislation? Joining us to discuss all of this is NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. In the past, Senate Democrats have tried to move voting legislation to the floor and have failed. What's the plan now?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a memo to his colleagues outlining a procedural path to use existing Senate rules to at least start debate on two key pieces of legislation. This is the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But Senate Democrats still need 60 votes to move these bills forward, and with an evenly divided Senate, they fall short with Republican opposition. Schumer told reporters that he does not want to delude anyone into thinking that this is easy.

MARTINEZ: So as you said, if Democrats are indeed going to fall short due to GOP opposition, what do they do then?

GRISALES: Right. Schumer and other Democrats have talked about changing Senate rules, but there's even less interest there, and they don't know what a new version of what that could look like - for example, if it's a move towards a filibuster, where a member has to hold the floor by talking. Republicans have been very vocal about their opposition here, calling it a power grab. On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Biden's remarks this week on voting rights were, quote, "profoundly unpresidential."

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Look; I've known, liked and personally respected Joe Biden for many years. I did not recognize the man at the podium.

GRISALES: During a separate visit to the Hill yesterday, Biden said he still called McConnell a friend, while White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was more unbecoming that Republicans continue to push false lies tied to the 2020 election.

MARTINEZ: All right, if it doesn't sound like Democrats have the votes to change the rules, why are they pushing this issue then?

GRISALES: This is a marquee issue for the party, and a new wave of election disinformation and the January 6 attack escalated these concerns. Florida Representative Val Demings touched on what's at stake here.

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VAL DEMINGS: We can talk about civil rights. We can talk about women's rights. We can talk about Social Security, Medicare, education. But all of it is at risk.

GRISALES: Demings joined the House Congressional Black Caucus to say the world is watching the Senate's next steps here, and they argued that you cannot have a government by the people unless every American can fully participate in democracy, something they argue Republicans at the state level are eroding. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said he does not think there is any issue more emotional for members of the caucus or their constituents.

MARTINEZ: One more thing really quick - Kevin McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republican in the House, released a statement saying he would not cooperate with the January 6 inquiry. What do you make of that?

GRISALES: McCarthy marks a key witness for the committee. They wanted to hear from him. So this is an ask that we were watching for closely. But it is not too much of a surprise that he declined, since most Republicans are boycotting the committee's effort. That said, it puts the panel in a tricky position now to consider whether they should issue a subpoena to try and force his cooperation.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.