Senate descends into hours-long fight over elections bill

Senators on Tuesday engaged in hours of high-profile sparring as Democrats try to advance sweeping legislation that would overhaul federal elections.

Efforts to move forward with one of the party’s biggest legislative proposals, the For the People Act, forced long-simmering frustrations over the wide-ranging bill to boil over in a public setting as Republicans fought back against virtually every aspect of the bill.

The Senate Rules Committee, a relatively sleepy panel, is at the heart of the fight, holding an hours-long debate Tuesday that included Senate leaders and other top members facing off against each other.

There were moments of levity, but that only underscored how much senators were ramping up the drama for much of the hearing.

“We don’t have very many lengthy or spirited markups in this committee. They happen from time to time. It actually appears the cycle is very close to the appearance of the cicada,” joked Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), former chairman and now the top Republican on the panel.

Democratic leadership views passing the For the People Act as their top legislative goal. To Republicans, their top priority is to sink the bill, pulling out all the stops to try to prevent what they view as an attempted “takeover” of elections.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who are both members of the committee, made rare appearances at Tuesday’s hearing to trade jabs.

Schumer tied GOP opposition to the bill to separate efforts by Republicans in state legislatures across the country to place new restrictions on voting, amidst former President Trump and some of his most ardent congressional allies doubling down on a false claim that the 2020 election was “stolen.”

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

“In democracy, when you lose an election, you try to persuade more voters to vote for you. You don’t try to ban the other side from voting. That’s what [Viktor] Orban does, that’s what [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan does, that’s what dictators do,” Schumer said, referring to the leaders of Hungary and Turkey, respectively.

McConnell fired back that Democrats were trying to rewrite the election rules in their favor.

“The Democratic Party wants to rewrite the ground rules of American politics for partisan benefit,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine anything that would erode public confidence in our democracy more drastically. This bill had purely partisan support in the House. It had bipartisan opposition.”

Underscoring the depth of disagreement, the Senate Rules Committee debate that started at 10 a.m. lasted into Tuesday night, with 177 bill amendments filed.

Most of those were from Republicans, including 46 from Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), 31 from Blunt and 31 from Sen. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.). 

GOP senators attacked the bill from multiple angles, including unsuccessful amendments to keep the Federal Election Commission at six members instead of five and delaying the bill’s implementation until 2027. But Republicans successfully blocked an amendment from Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff (Ga.) to 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 bill, which passed the House without any GOP support, requires states to offer mail-in ballots and a minimum of 15 days of early voting, while pushing 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.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the committee chairwoman, crafted a substitute amendment that gave state and local governments more time and flexibility to comply with some of the bill’s provisions. But because the Rules Committee is evenly split at 9-9, their amendment failed with all Republicans voting against it.

Some changes to the legislative package were adopted, including a provision allowing mail-in voting for service members and options for voters with disabilities to return ballots.

But the markup largely consisted of political fireworks, with senators trading barbs that it was the other party, and not theirs, that was acting like a dictatorship.

“I think this is an attempt to change the rules while you have the slimmest majority,” Hagerty said. “This is something that I would expect from communist China.”

The debate also dove into issues like statehood for Washington, D.C., and GOP efforts to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her No. 3 post in House GOP leadership.

“Unfortunately, the ‘big lie’ is spreading like a cancer among Republicans. It’s enveloping and consuming the Republican Party, in both houses of Congress. … Liz Cheney spoke truth to power, and for that, she’s being fired,” Schumer said.

Tensions boiled over as senators sparred over the 2016 and 2020 elections.

When Cruz argued that Democrats in the wake of the 2016 election “insisted for four years that Hillary won and the election was stolen,” Klobuchar interrupted, visibly laughing, and said, “You must not have been in the same Electoral College room as me.”

Cruz carried on, fuming and accusing Democrats of trying to create the “Chuck Schumer Federal Election Commission.”

“This is a brazen power grab by the Democrats because you’ve decided democracy isn’t worth it,” he said.

But Klobuchar homed in on a fresh sore spot: The Jan. 6 Capitol attack and efforts by dozens of Republicans to challenge the results in key states that President Biden won in November.

“Let’s fast forward to the day of the insurrection … when in fact you, Sen. Cruz, not all of your colleagues here today, you were contesting the Electoral College,” Klobuchar said. “You were leading, one of the leaders on the effort.”

Not all committee members joined in the fray.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, urged his colleagues to dial down their rhetoric.

“I would like to suggest that we could elevate this discussion by talking about the provisions of the bill, not who intended to do what,” King said.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Angus King Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Donald Trump elections bill For the People Act Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Liz Cheney Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt Ted Cruz voting rights

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