Senate poised for all-day brawl over sweeping elections bill

WASHINGTON (thehill): Senators are set for a high-stakes battle over one of Democrats’ biggest priorities that could have repercussions not only for the 2022 midterm elections but the Senate itself.

The Senate Rules Committee will meet on Tuesday to debate and vote on a sweeping elections bill that progressives view as crucial to the future of democracy and Republicans see as a federal takeover of the voting process.

The bill comes as GOP-led states around the country are proposing and enacting laws to rein in ballot box access, fueling pressure for Democrats to use their razor-thin congressional majorities to step in. Underscoring how important it is to the party, Democrats reserved their first legislative slot — S. 1 in the Senate and H.R. 1 in the House — for the legislation, known as the For the People Act.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are expected to take part in Tuesday’s committee meeting, lending their heft and headline-grabbing prowess to what’s expected to be a contentious hours-long hearing divided along party lines. Though they are both members of the panel, and former chairmen, they rarely attend the committee hearings.

Republicans have filed roughly 150 amendments to the bill as they pull out all the stops to weaken or even sink it.

“I think it will last at least all day. I think at some point the chairwoman will have to decide if she wants legitimate amendments from our members to all have a chance to be voted on,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the panel, referring to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). “I think they owe it to the other side to let the other side be heard.”

McConnell is planning to offer amendments during Tuesday’s debate, according to his office.

Republicans, one committee aide said, will focus their efforts on parts of the bill they believe would make elections “less fair” and “less secure,” including offering amendments to strike provisions that weaken voter ID laws.

Vowing to fight the bill “at every step,” amendments filed by Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) would strike a provision on same-day registration at polling locations, change language supportive of D.C. statehood to language opposing it and try to delay implementation of the entire bill until 2027.

Blunt will use his opening remarks to paint the Democratic measure as a “one-size-fits all approach” being dictated by Washington that will “cause chaos on election day and erode trust in our election system.“

“This is a bad bill, full of bad policies that create problems not solutions. We should be focused on making it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Regrettably, the bill before us makes it easier to cheat and harder to detect,” he will say, according to excerpts of his remarks obtained by The Hill.

The bill passed the House earlier this year for a second time after it went nowhere last year in the GOP-controlled Senate. The legislation, which received no Republican support in the House during the March vote, requires states to offer mail-in ballots and a minimum of 15 days of early voting, while calling for online and same-day voter registration. The measure also calls for the creation of independent commissions to draw congressional districts in an effort to put an end to partisan gerrymandering.

Amid talks with election officials and among Senate Democrats, Klobuchar has offered a substitute amendment that keeps the bill largely intact but gives states more time to comply with some provisions.

“We are all united behind this bill,” Klobuchar said about Democrats on the panel during an Our Revolution organizing event on Monday night.

The changes include giving states until 2026 to update their voting systems, with the option of requesting a waiver to delay that further into 2030. It keeps the requirement from the original bill for state motor vehicle departments to implement automatic voter registration by 2023, but they can also request a waiver until 2025.

Other changes under Klobuchar’s amendment would give polling locations more time to offer same-day registration and more flexibility on areas like early voting and drop boxes.

A Democratic source predicted that their party’s amendments would largely reflect things already in the updated bill spearheaded by Klobuchar and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

“This takes care of some of the biggest challenges, you know, some of the reasonable requests for small jurisdictions to be considered,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the panel, about the changes put forward by Klobuchar and Merkley.

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) will offer an amendment that would prohibit states from placing restrictions on volunteers’ ability to offer food or water to voters waiting in line, as long as they are not engaging in a political activity and extend the offer to every voter in line.

The Senate standoff comes as numerous state legislatures across the country have introduced legislation to place new restrictions on voting in the wake of the 2020 election, which former President Trump and his allies have falsely claimed was stolen. Dozens of challenges from Trump’s legal team were dismissed by the courts, and election experts have said there is no evidence of widespread fraud.

The Brennan Center for Justice found that as of March 24, legislatures have introduced 361 bills with “restrictive provisions” in 47 states.

A Washington Post analysis found that the state-level changes could amount to the biggest shift in access to the ballot since Reconstruction, placing limits on the ability to vote for tens of millions of Americans.

That’s led Democrats and outside groups to argue that the For the People Act is crucial to stem any efforts to try to limit voting.

Schumer, speaking from the Senate floor on Monday, called the bill a “very top priority” and vowed to give it a vote in the full Senate.

“Our Republican colleagues face a critical choice between working with Democrats in good faith to pass a law to protect our democracy or siding with Republican state legislatures that are orchestrating the largest contraction of voting rights in decades,” he said.

“We know our Republican colleagues don’t like every aspect of S. 1, but will they work in good faith to improve it?” he added.

Outside groups view the bill, and the likelihood that Republicans filibuster it, as a make-or-break moment for the Senate’s rules change debate.

Democrats at the moment do not have the 50 votes needed to get rid of the legislative filibuster and its 60-vote threshold for advancing most bills. In addition to on-the-record opposition from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), several others have suggested they are wary of nixing or weakening the longstanding rule.

And while Schumer has floated that a GOP filibuster of the bill could force the Senate to “evolve,” Manchin has signaled that he doesn’t support the House-passed bill, though he hasn’t taken a stance yet on the revised version.

“We’re looking at everything,” he said.

Other Democrats stopped short of predicting whether the elections bill could be what breaks the stalemate in the caucus over the legislative filibuster. Senate Democrats will meet as a caucus on Thursday to discuss the legislation, a Democratic source familiar confirmed to The Hill.

“I’m not the person to ask. The two or three people who are most concerned about the future of the filibuster are the ones you ask,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) when asked if Republicans blocking the bill would move the conversation among Democrats about the filibuster.

Asked if there was a path for S. 1 with the filibuster still in place, Warner responded: “I’ll let you guys make those judgments.”