Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill

Greg Nash

Democrats are opening the door to revamping a sweeping election reform bill, considered a top priority for the party’s base, as they try to shore up support within their own ranks. 

Democrats have vowed to hold a vote on the For the People Act in just over a week, giving them a matter of days to try to figure out a series of changes that, even if it doesn’t peel off GOP votes, at least lets them claim unity.

That started a conversation among Senate Democrats about either paring down the 800-page bill, or breaking off smaller pieces entirely as stand-alone legislation. 

“That is a best-case scenario bill. I support everything in it. But I also recognize that you can make a big difference for the health of democracy by passing parts of it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) added that Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has been in charge of fielding requests for changes, noting that “a lot of Dems have had concerns.” 

“She’s been working with Merkley trying to fix them all,” Kaine said, referring to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who spearheaded the bill. 

The For the People Act is a sweeping bill that, among other initiatives aimed at expanding voting, 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. 

It also overhauls campaign finance rules, changes the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, imposes new ethics rules for public officials and establishes new requirements on congressional redistricting.

When the bill was written it was largely viewed as a messaging bill, meant to be used to make a political point rather than pass, because Democrats were out of power. But it emerged as a top priority for the party’s base and underscoring its importance, House Democrats gave it its first bill slot — H.R. 1 — when they won back the majority. Senate Democrats followed suit earlier this year. 

The bill can’t get 60 votes as currently drafted with every Republican dug in against the legislation, which they view as a far-reaching attempt by the federal government to control elections. 

“Their marquee bill, S. 1, is such a brazen political power-grab that the question isn’t even whether it could earn bipartisan support. The question is how wide the bipartisan opposition will be,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

But the bigger problem for Democrats is whether they can get all 50 of their senators to agree to start debate on the bill, in what would be a symbolic victory because it would still fall to a GOP filibuster. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has declined to say how he’ll vote on the procedural roadblock, but has come out against the bill. He says he opposes the bill because it doesn’t have GOP support, a position that has angered progressives because it is not based on policy.

But while Manchin is the biggest holdout, and the only Democratic senator not a formal co-sponsor of the bill, Democrats say there’s a broader push for changes before the vote this month. 

“I think it will be a broader dialogue. … He’s not the only person with concerns,” Murphy said. “If that bill was going to make it to the floor there was going to have to be a broader conversation in the caucus.” 

Democratic leadership and key senators say they are open to making changes ahead of the vote. 

“We will vote on voting rights legislation, bold legislation, S. 1 in the last week in June,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters, adding that Democrats could “change a few things here and there.”

Technically Klobuchar and Merkley offered an updated version of the bill during a committee markup last month. But that updated version failed in the committee, where membership is evenly split and ties on amendments result in it failing. 

Schumer hasn’t said how he will bring the bill to the floor but Democrats are expected to work the changes back into the base bill. 

Some are floating breaking out pieces of the sweeping bill and trying to pass them as stand-alone proposals, in an effort to shore up Democrats but also win over Republicans on a smaller measure. 

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) floated that she could be open to picking out specific pieces of the For the People Act, including focusing on tightening rules around “dark money,” spending where the source isn’t disclosed. 

“It’s going pretty far me to say I would be open to certain parts of it because my hope was that all 50 of us would be supportive of it, but that’s clearly not going to be the case,” she said. 

Manchin has also suggested he’s more supportive of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act after a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted a formula for determining which states and localities had to undergo Justice Department preclearance before making election changes. 

But it’s not clear how that bill gets to 60 votes either. Neither the House nor Senate have reintroduced the bill this year, though Democrats say they intend to. But it only got the support of one GOP senator — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — when it was introduced during the previous Congress. 

Schumer has said that a version of S. 1 will be included in the voting package that gets brought up during the week of June 21. But Democrats are also publicly floating merging the voting rights update into the For the People Act, or mixing parts of the two bills while dropping other provisions. 

“We’re going to do voting rights. … But is it S. 1 plus S. 4, is it some of S. 1 plus as S. 4?” Kaine said, referring to the bill numbers for the For the People Act and the voting rights bill. 

Hirono floated the John Lewis legislation as “one route” for Democrats. 

“Considering the Voting Rights Act always was supported in a hugely bipartisan way, one would hope the Republicans are not going to be 100 percent hypocritical and vote against it,” Hirono said. “But I’m not holding my breath.” 


Tags Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Filibuster Jeff Merkley Joe Manchin John Lewis Lisa Murkowski Mazie Hirono Mitch McConnell Tim Kaine voting rights

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