On Tuesday, the final full day of outgoing President Donald Trump’s time in office, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and soon-to-be Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced that the first legislative effort once Democrats officially take control of the Senate would be the For The People Act, which the Democrat-led House already passed. The legislation includes provisions like new ethics rules for members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, increased funding for election security, and a demand for the release of tax returns by presidents and vice presidents. Infamously, of course, Trump refused to willingly release his tax returns throughout his presidency.
News: Senate Democrats just unveiled their first bill of the new Congress—the "For The People Act"—to restore Voting Rights Act, bolster voter protections and election infrastructure, toughen campaign finance rules and disclosures, and impose new executive branch ethics rules.
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 19, 2021
In the description of NBC reporter Sahil Kapur, the legislation would also “restore” the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court significantly weakened when they removed the requirement for federal oversight of certain local election-related procedure changes in 2013. Schumer commented as follows:
‘Senate Democrats are committed to advancing real solutions and fighting to uphold the core tenets of our constitution, which is why we are announcing today that the first bill of the new Congress will be the For the People Act.’
Although Democrats will control the Senate once recently victorious Sens.-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are sworn in, the filibuster could still provide a significant hurdle to the party’s legislative agenda. Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate on many issues, meaning that a simple majority in the chamber would not be enough to move some legislation forward without support from the other side.
Merkley did not conclusively say whether Democrats would pursue eliminating the filibuster once they officially win Senate control. Theoretically, a potential future Republican majority in the Senate could use the absence of a filibuster to their political advantage. Merkley commented as follows:
‘It’s too soon to say how we’ll pursue this. I think that every American has received a message that the integrity of our elections is incredibly important and so in terms of accountability for the events of this past year there’s probably nothing more important than passing the For the People Act.’
Although the step might not be applicable to some of the provisions of the For The People Act, there is one potential method available to Senate Democrats to pass critical legislation with a simple majority: budget reconciliation. The so-called budget reconciliation process allows the Senate to pass a limited number of bills per year that affect government spending without requiring the agreement of 60 Senators to end debate. During the early part of the Trump administration, the Senate used this method to pass Trump’s infamous tax reform package that, among other things, significantly lowered the corporate tax rate.