The stakes could not be higher. A sweeping democracy reform bill currently under consideration by the U.S. Senate addresses some of the Democratic Party’s core priorities: getting big money out of politics, ending partisan gerrymandering, and ensuring a massive expansion to voting access. It is the cornerstone on which everything else the party wants to achieve rests.
But that is exactly why the For the People Act will be so hard to pass. With the narrowest of majorities in the Senate, the Democrats will need to eliminate the filibuster in order to get the bill through without Republican support. Voting rights organizations, Democratic lawmakers, and even artists like Joe Jonas and Billie Eilish are urging the party to take this step for a bill of this magnitude. If it fails, the dozens of voter suppression bills currently being pushed in 43 states could proceed unheeded. As a result, the party’s legislative priorities could be blocked for the foreseeable future. And voters could lose faith in a party that has failed to secure such a major piece of legislation while holding unified control of the government.
Amid this heavy backdrop, Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar called Teen Vogue to talk about the For the People Act’s first-ever hearing before the Senate on Wednesday.
“We are giving our all to get it passed,” the senator said in an early evening phone call after the hours-long hearing wrapped.
Witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing included former attorney general Eric Holder and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, which is tracking 253 state-level bills currently being proposed to restrict voting access. They spoke about how the act — which will make it easier to register to vote and to cast ballots, overhaul the campaign finance system, and ban partisan gerrymandering — would transform the political landscape.
As Shana Gallagher, former leader of “Students for Bernie” and co-founder of the Un-PAC democracy reform organization, recently told Teen Vogue, the act represents “the closest thing to a silver bullet that I've ever seen when it comes to making our democracy actually functional and accountable and representative.”
The bill passed the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote on March 3. As Mother Jones reported, Klobuchar is now among a growing number of Democratic lawmakers who say that the legislation is important enough to merit eliminating the filibuster, which would allow it to pass the Senate with just 51 votes instead of 60. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said “everything is on the table” for this must-pass bill, and President Joe Biden has said he supports revising the filibuster to require the minority party to talk on the floor to block legislation, rather than just signaling their opposition, as CNBC reported.
Here’s what Klobuchar had to say about the bill and Wednesday’s hearing.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Teen Vogue: Can you start by talking about how it felt on the floor today, the first time this historic legislation went before the Senate? What did you notice about your colleagues’ responses or the mood in the chamber?
Amy Klobuchar: I thought it was very dismaying that Republicans are literally supporting not making it easy for people to vote. You’ve got a situation where you’ve got the most people voting ever in the history of America in the middle of a pandemic — that’s tremendous. A lot of why that happened is because states that hadn't made it easy to vote by mail made it easy to vote by mail. They let people register ahead of time or vote earlier than they had in the past. Once we open that door, why would you close it? Why would you go backwards? ... When [the GOP] talk[s] about chaos, chaos is a five-hour wait to vote. Chaos is purging voting rolls and modern-day poll taxes. Chaos is what they did in Texas — one dropoff box for each county, including one that had 5 million people in it. And chaos is that angry mob we saw invade the capitol on January 6th. So overall i was proud of our witnesses — Eric Holder and Secretary [of State] Jocelyn Benson from Michigan, and also I was happy that we had the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who is a Republican, who was John McCain’s counsel, testify in favor of the bill. He said this was about democracy and making it easier for people to vote and getting rid of dark money in politics. It’s not about favoring one party over another. When people vote in droves, sometimes one party wins sometimes the other party wins but you don’t stop people from voting.
TV: So basically it felt frustrating that you even have to be having this conversation, but you’re glad that you’re at least finally getting a hearing for the bill after not being able to last session. Obviously the big question is if the filibuster will be eliminated either entirely or just for this piece of legislation. What do you think will happen here and how do you feel personally?
AK: I am supportive of getting rid of the filibuster. I mean you look at what we’ve seen with these tragedies in Boulder and in Atlanta — background checks are supported by 80, 90% of the American people. And they are consistently blocked because you can’t get 60 votes. And it’s this archaic procedure that has been put in place actually during a time in our history to make it harder for people to vote. It’s looked at as a relic of the Jim Crow laws and it’s time for change. I would just get rid of it, period.
But there are other things we could do as well, like actually make people speak and object like they used to do in the movies. To actually have to be in the chamber and speak and own their objections instead of hiding behind procedures. That’s called the talking filibuster, the standing filibuster. That’s one way to do it. So my goal right now as the chair of the Senate Rules Committee is to get this bill through the Senate committee and then onto the Senate floor.
TV: What happens if the act doesn’t pass? One young organizer we spoke to recently said people aren’t going to keep supporting Democrats if the party doesn’t come through for them when they have unified control of government. So there’s both the significance for the Democratic Party and for the future of voting access in the country, especially for historically marginalized populations.
AK: Senator Warnock, our new senator from Georgia who is so amazing and gave his maiden speech about voting rights, said this is really about some people who don’t want some people to vote. The other point he made about the filibuster is what do we care about more — protecting the minority rights of some guys in the Senate or protecting actual minority rights, of minority voters. I think that answer is easy. And the mail-in ballots and all the things that happened this fall to make it easier to vote helped voters — young people, voters of color — and really got people out to vote. That’s what the For the People Act is all about.
TV: Senator Schumer has said that failure isn’t an option, so back to that earlier question — how the Democratic base will feel if it does fail. Any response to that?
AK: We are giving our all to get it passed. Senator Merkley told me it wouldn't be happy until it passed — for the rest of his life, so there you go. I think you saw that in the hearing. Every single Democratic senator sponsored the bill on the Rules Committee, every single one of them showed up from Mark Warner to Senator Schumer. And we are really going to make an all-out effort because this is already past the floor. I know it’s frustrating the Senate, and we’re really going to have to look at making changes to get this done. But people should know this is the first time we’ve even been able to have a hearing on this bill, because we took back the Senate and [because of] what happened in Georgia. That allowed me to have the gavel and the chairmanship. So we had our first hearing on this bill ever, we’re going to vote it out of committee next month, and then we head to the floor.
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