On June 25, President Joe Biden signed into law the first legislation on gun reform passed by Congress in a generation. It was touted as proof of life for bipartisanship: 15 Senate Republicans backed the bill, which didn’t go as far as many Democrats wanted but still accomplished some key priorities.
Democrats took both chambers of Congress and the White House in 2020 promising movement on lots of other issues, too, particularly voting rights and climate change. Abortion access became another focus after the Supreme Court reversed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision just one day before Biden signed the gun bill. Democratic voters and liberal activists have been frustrated by what they see as a lack of action on these core issues.
If politics is about the art of the possible, are there lessons in the passage of the gun bill for other seemingly intractable issues? And is there a spirit of consensus that could lead to progress that Democrats and Republicans can agree on headed into this fall’s midterm elections?
I checked in with activists on voting rights, abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and climate change to ask them about what they’d like to see get done before the end of this year — and, specifically, what they think can get done now to make a difference. Some people see opportunity for progress — but not all do.
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NAACP Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Janai Nelson wants changes to be made to stop states from making it harder for people to cast ballots. Most of those measures seem unlikely to make it through the current Congress — but, Nelson said, addressing the issue of election subversion may be more doable and could help to shore up democracy. She also said the January 6 Committee — with two Republican members, if not the support of GOP leadership — is an example of what is possible, calling their efforts “powerful work.”
“This has transcended political party,” Nelson said. “This is about patriotism, love of country, and the willingness to fight for freedom, regardless of ideology. This is an existential question. What are we casting a ballot for? What system are we investing in? January 6 has underscored how critical that is.”
Democrats have been pushing to protect voting rights in the wake of the January 6 insurrection and as GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country have passed voter suppression laws in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and rife with voter fraud.
Multiple proposals at the federal level have fallen flat. Last fall, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would’ve restored the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for a 10-year period for states with a history of voter disenfranchisement, failed in the Senate after GOP lawmakers — except for Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — rejected debate on the legislation. In January, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the Freedom to Vote Act — which would have expanded voter registration and access, limited voter purges, established Election Day as a federal holiday, made election interference a federal crime, and outlined criteria for redistricting and campaign finance — was blocked by the Senate.
But bipartisan efforts at reforms to the Electoral College Act are still underway. Proposed legislation could be ready as soon as next month.
“This is beyond the ballot box,” Nelson said. “If we don’t have a democracy, we don’t have a future.”
The Senate has been where many of the measures activists are pushing have been stopped. While Democrats control it, it’s evenly split, and 60 votes are needed to accomplish most things. That’s why many of the activists don’t think any movement on their issues is possible without an end to the filibuster — or at least ways around it.
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Biden had been steadfastly opposed to any carveouts from the filibuster for much of his tenure but has recently budged on that. He signaled last month that he now supports getting rid of the filibuster to pass legislation on abortion, after saying earlier this year he was in favor of eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights.
But it’s not up to him, and two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, are opposed to ending the filibuster, making the way forward on the issue unclear. On Friday, Biden encouraged people — women, in particular – to vote for “two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House” in November, a nod to the possibility that they could override the filibuster in the upcoming Congress.
But in the current political reality, with changes to the filibuster unlikely, it’s unclear if compromise legislation on other issues can follow the path of the gun law.
Hillary Holley, former organizing director of Fair Fight — the national voting rights group started by Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — wasn’t particularly optimistic about compromise. For her, pushing for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and carving out the filibuster to do it is essential.
“If we’re telling people to vote, we have to make sure that they have access to a ballot, that there won’t be long lines, and that their ballots get counted and we can certify the election,” said Holley.
“They did it for the debt ceiling; they can do it for democracy,” Holley said. “All of the calls to action so we can have more elected officials to support the right to abortion, to protect gay marriage, climate change … none of that can happen if we don’t have the fundamental right to vote.”
Imara Jones, founder of TransLash Media, said eliminating the filibuster to pass the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas including employment, housing, education and public accommodations, would go a long way toward protecting LGBTQ+ people.
“It fits into this conversation about the filibuster being waived when it comes to essential rights,” said Jones, who added that while she thinks there could be 53 votes in the Senate on this legislation, she is “struggling to see the ability to come up with compromise” on broader issues of LGBTQ+ rights among Republicans.
“Even on basic stuff like conversion therapy or the ability of a student in a classroom to say what gay is … I’m kind of baffled,” Jones said. “We’re in an era where the other side is not about compromise.”
The Supreme Court’s June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision ended federal protections for abortion, meaning access to abortion is now up to the states.
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Biden has urged Congress to pass federal legislation to protect abortion access but has said that while the administration will do what it can to ensure access to legal care, as president, there is little he can do on his own. On Friday, he signed an executive order aimed at expanding access to medication abortion, educating people about legally available abortion options and providing legal help for people seeking or providing abortions.
The Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified the right to abortion, failed to advance in the Senate in May just days after a draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion was leaked, signaling the Supreme Court’s plans nearly two months early.
Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said she is looking for the administration to enforce Medicaid’s free choice of provider provision so that those patients aren’t cut off from contraception.
But, she said, “people who need an abortion and access to basic reproductive health care services cannot compromise.”
“They need care now,” McGill Johnson said, and called for abortion rights majorities in Congress to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. “There should be no compromise on our rights. We are here because lawmakers and interest groups hostile to sexual and reproductive rights have spent decades trying to take away our ability to control our own bodies, lives and futures.”
When he took office, Biden identified climate as one of the four pillar priorities of his presidency, and within days of his inauguration, he signed an executive order creating the goal that 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in areas including climate change, clean energy, development of clean water and clean transit would go to disadvantaged communities impacted by pollution — an initiative known as Justice40.
Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute, thinks either Congress or the president could act to expand Justice40 to make all climate investment subject to the initiative.
“Whenever anyone brings up compromise, I think, ‘Compromise based on what?’” said Gunn-Wright, who did much of the research that turned into the Green New Deal resolution proposed by progressives, but decried by Republicans as radical.
Compromise can be meaningful, she said, if it’s principled and doesn’t move things forward while sacrificing marginalized communities.
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“Paying attention to community control, stakeholder engagement, being very clear about the benefits that are going to disadvantaged communities … that would be really important and go a long way to making sure a transition to renewable energy is actually equitable,” Gunn-Wright said.
Making clean energy tax credits subject to Justice40 standards in particular is on her list. And Gunn-Wright also sees the issue of pollution reduction as ripe for bipartisan compromise, though some may see it as protecting their land and avoid the language of environmental justice.
Bipartisan compromise, though, is tricky — even if the gun bill shows that it may still be possible. Many recently elected Republicans were sent to office on the promise that they would stop the government from doing things. Gerrymandering has made House districts less competitive, meaning members may be less likely to compromise to protect themselves from challenges from within their own parties. The current political climate means the 50 Republican senators represent fewer people than the 50 Democratic ones. And some Republican-led state legislatures are making it harder to vote, making it less likely that some Americans’ voices will be heard.
There’s no guarantee any movement will happen on abortion or climate or democracy, even on broadly popular measures — and even if it does, for many activists and voters, it still won’t be enough.
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The White House’s calls for people who support abortion rights to vote have angered some progressives, dissatisfied with the idea of voting as an answer to a moment that feels existential for millions of Americans.
But voters have also said that doing nothing is not an option — and if the perfect is the enemy of the good, compromise may be at least the cousin of progress. Biden campaigned both on his ability to seek and create consensus and deliver on some of the same priorities these activists are pushing. Can the will to move forward overcome a mandate to obstruct?