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Democrats revisit voting rights legislation around Jan. 6 anniversary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. Senate is back to work this week, and Senate Democrats are forging ahead with their ambitious agenda. It includes voting rights legislation and President Biden's now nearly $2 trillion spending package. Republicans are blocking these plans, and not just Republicans. Democrats face opposition within their own caucus. NPR's Barbara Sprunt covers Congress. Hey there, Barbara.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: So it's a sober week on Capitol Hill, of course, with the anniversary of January 6. But work goes on, and the focus is on voting legislation. Why?

SPRUNT: Well, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sees what happened nearly a year ago at the Capitol as directly tied to what's going on in GOP-led state legislatures, where they've implemented some restricting voting measures. And Schumer says this all comes from former President Trump's false claims that there was rampant voter fraud in the last election. Now, Democrats say their legislation actually combats these more restrictive laws - so ensuring among other things that states have access to mail-in voting and early voting.

KELLY: Yeah, although the Senate, as we know, has tried to advance this before. They need 60 votes, and they haven't had them. Is there a sign that they have them now?

SPRUNT: Honestly, probably not. Senate Republicans have already blocked this from being taken up several times. They see this legislation as a form of federal overreach.

KELLY: Yeah. So what's the plan by Democrats? What will change?

SPRUNT: Well, Schumer says that if Republicans once again block the bill from advancing, the Senate will vote on changing the filibuster rules by January 17. And that's a big deal. This is the furthest he's gone in saying that the time has come for some changes. But Schumer needs all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats to be on board. And at least two - Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona - have repeatedly defended the filibuster. And when Schumer spoke about the importance of voting rights earlier today on the floor, he didn't mention them by name, but it was clear he was sending a message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: If the right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, then how can we Democrats permit a situation in which Republicans can pass voter suppression laws at the state level with only a simple majority vote but not allow the United States Senate to do the same? And I ask that of my Democratic colleagues - my Democratic colleagues.

KELLY: Yeah, hard to miss, Barbara, who he is aiming these remarks at. So if the plan is Democrats trying to get skeptical senators on board with changing the filibuster rules, how are the talks going?

SPRUNT: Well, Democrats are looking to see if there are rule changes that Manchin could get on board with - so for example, establishing a carve-out specifically for voting rights or bringing back the talking filibuster, which would basically keep the Senate working 24/7 but would force senators who want to block bills to work for it. Right now they don't even have to show up. And Manchin told reporters on Capitol Hill earlier today that he thinks that carve-out idea would be a heavy lift. He's not agreeing to anything yet. He says that this would be a very dramatic change for the Senate, and he doesn't want to do that unless there's bipartisan support.

KELLY: Well, let me, before we let you go, ask about the other big item that they are working on this week - the president's major social and climate spending package, the Build Back Better legislation. Where does that stand?

SPRUNT: Well, it seems that right now Build Back Better is on the back burner. Manchin told reporters he's had no conversations about that spending package since he poured cold water on it several weeks ago. And Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said today that the package is essentially paused until after the Senate deals with voting rights.

KELLY: Update there on what they are up to with the legislative agenda in the Senate. NPR's Barbara Sprunt, thank you.

SPRUNT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.