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Senate panel deadlocks in vote on sweeping elections bill

A key Senate panel deadlocked Tuesday on sweeping Democratic legislation to overhaul elections after an hours-long, often heated debate.

The Senate Rules Committee evenly split 9-9 on the For the People Act, the top legislative priority for Democrats heading into the 2022 election.

Though the tie means Democrats aren't able to formally advance the bill to the floor, that won't stop the party from moving forward with it.

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Democrats have multiple options for how to ultimately bring the election reform bill up for a vote in the Senate, something Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHeatwaves don't lie: Telling the truth about climate change Schumer backing plan to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE (D-N.Y.) has vowed to do.

"With respect and some earnest debate, I think a lot of people have learned things today. I hope that will guide as we go forward. ... We must get this bill passed," Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBottom Line This week: Senate set for voting rights fight Democrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl MORE (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the panel, said shortly before the vote.

"This is not the last you will hear. ... This is the beginning," Klobuchar added.

Tuesday is the first time a Senate panel has marked up the bill, after it went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. Senate Democrats will meet on Thursday to discuss their strategy on the bill, which is expected to come to the floor by August.

Even as Democrats have seized on the bill, it faces a complicated path to making it to President BidenJoe BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE’s desk. With unified GOP opposition, it doesn’t have the support needed to defeat a 60-vote legislative filibuster. And it doesn’t unify Democrats, with Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSinema defends filibuster ahead of Senate voting rights showdown The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin MORE (D-W.Va.) suggesting his party should focus more narrowly on voting rights. 

But Tuesday’s debate — just a preview of the fireworks if Schumer brings the bill to the floor — 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.

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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 BluntRoy Dean BluntCongress barrels toward debt cliff Excellence Act will expand mental health and substance use treatment access to millions Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 MORE (R-Mo.), the former chairman and now the top Republican on the panel.

If the For the People Act is the top legislative goal for Democratic leaders, Republicans see their top priority as sinking it. They pulled out all the stops Tuesday to try to prevent what they view as an attempted “takeover” of elections.

Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats go down to the wire with Manchin Schumer unloads on GOP over elections bill: 'How despicable of a man is Donald Trump?' This week: Senate set for voting rights fight MORE (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. 

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 [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán does. That's what [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan does. That's what dictators do," Schumer said.

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.”

Nearly 180 amendments were filed to the bill. Most of those were from Republicans, including 46 from Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Republicans: Newly proposed ATF rules could pave way for national gun registry DeSantis tops Trump in 2024 presidential straw poll White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine MORE (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.

“I think we made the point today of the danger of federalizing the election,” Blunt said as the hearing wrapped up nearly nine hours after it started.

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Republicans successfully blocked an amendment from Democratic Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffDemocrats seek new ways to expand Medicaid in holdout states Stacey Abrams calls on young voters of color to support election reform bill MLB calls lawsuit over All-Star Game 'political theatrics' MORE (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.

Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyThis week: Senate set for voting rights fight Democrats scramble to unify before election bill brawl Schumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' MORE (D-Ore.) and Klobuchar 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. Blunt, even while acknowledging Republicans didn’t agree with them on the bill, thanked Klobuchar for “cooperative efforts” and a “fair effort” in steering the hours-long debate. 

But the markup largely consisted of political fireworks, with senators trading barbs that it was the other party, 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.”

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The debate also dived into issues such as Washington, D.C., statehood and GOP efforts to oust Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyLiz Cheney hired security after death threats: report Cheney: 'It is disgusting and despicable' to see Gosar 'lie' about Jan. 6 GOP's Stefanik defends Trump DOJ secret subpoenas MORE (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 following 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 SchumerChuck SchumerHeatwaves don't lie: Telling the truth about climate change Schumer backing plan to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting MORE Federal Election Commission.”

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

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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 KingAngus KingCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE (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.