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HR 1 debate gets under way as GOP sharpens attacks

McConnell predicts electoral disaster for supporters, but will not allow vote

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are seen after a news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday to oppose the House Democrats’ government overhaul package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are seen after a news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday to oppose the House Democrats’ government overhaul package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has led opposition to House Democrats’ campaign finance, elections and ethics overhaul, HR 1 — said Wednesday he believed lawmakers who support the measure may imperil their re-election chances.

Yet, the Kentucky Republican again pledged to give the measure, which the House is expected to pass along party lines on Friday, zero floor time in his chamber, declining then to give senators an opportunity to test his theory in their 2020 campaigns.

“I believe we can actually win elections against people who vote for this turkey,” McConnell said, offering insight into why he, K Street business interests and conservative organizations have intensified their opposition to the bill.

But when asked why he intends to bring a climate-change measure known as the Green New Deal to the Senate floor, but not the campaign finance and ethics overhaul, the Kentucky Republican was glib.

Watch: Pelosi focuses on HR1 and the anti-Semitism resolution in weekly presser

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“Because I get to decide what we vote on,” he said during a news conference Wednesday with House GOP leaders, who are on the front lines of attacking the measure.

Also joining McConnell in crusading against the bill were House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana; House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming; Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee; and Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri.

McConnell also called the bill a “parade of horrible” and a “terrible proposal” and blasted specific elements of it, including an optional 6-to-1 public matching system for small donations in congressional elections and a reshaping of the Federal Election Commission from a six-member agency to a five-member panel whose chairman or chairwoman would have greater power to launch enforcement actions.

The 622-page overhaul also seeks to remake the nation’s voting, campaign finance and lobbying laws. It would impose new requirements on states to offer early voting and online and same-day voter registration. It would establish new ethical standards for executive branch officials and Supreme Court justices.

Supporters of the overhaul, which was a signature messaging point along the campaign trail during the 2018 midterm elections, say they believe some embattled GOP senators would not want to take a vote because numerous polls show that voters on both sides of the aisle believe the political system favors big donors and business interests at the expense of ordinary people.

“If Sen. McConnell is so confident he can defeat people who support the For the People Act, he should bring it up for a vote,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for End Citizens United, which is pushing for the overhaul.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday on the House floor that the measure aims to respond to voters’ loss of faith in government. “We are ending the dominance of big, dark special interest money in politics,” the California Democrat said during debate on the bill.

House Democrats have already begun to break off specific elements of the overhaul package that they may try to pass individually, then send to the Senate, where McConnell would decide whether to take them up.

McConnell said he would be open to a prohibition on so-called ballot harvesting, a practice whereby people collect absentee ballots and give them to election officials. It was at the center of an election fraud controversy in the now-nullified 2018 race for North Carolina’s 9th District.

“If they decide to start splitting it up, I’ve indicated where I think we ought to start: We ought to get rid of ballot harvesting everywhere in America to deal with election fraud, which they claim is nonexistent,” McConnell said. “If they send us other individual pieces of legislation, we’ll be happy to take a look at it.”

Other amendments

House Democrats will allow consideration of 72 amendments to HR 1 — hailing from Democrats and Republicans — including one that would lower the voting age to 16 and another to crack down on undisclosed influence campaigns.

One amendment from New Jersey Democratic freshman Andy Kim would require that a new mandate for paper ballots in federal elections specify the use of recycled paper. Freshman Democrats made components of the campaign finance and anti-corruption bill a signature message along the campaign trail last fall.

A bipartisan amendment to the bill would compel the FEC to conduct an audit of illegal foreign influence and campaign donations in elections.

The House Rules Committee, which voted 9 to 4 along party lines Tuesday night, set the parameters for consideration and decided which amendments would come for a vote on the floor. The House on Wednesday adopted, 232-192, the rule that would provide for floor consideration of the bill.

In presenting her amendment at House Rules to lower the voting age to 16, freshman Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley argued that high schoolers have taken a leading role in pressing for new gun control laws and deserve greater participation in their democracy.

“They are organizing, mobilizing and calling us to action,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the panel Tuesday. 

McConnell said Wednesday that he believed another change to lower the voting age would take a constitutional amendment as was the case decades ago when it was lowered to 18.

Republican members are complaining Democrats thwarted consideration of some of their amendments, including one rolling back the Johnson Amendment, a 65-year-old policy that prohibits churches and charities from expressly endorsing federal candidates or risk losing their tax-exemptions.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to add that change to their 2017 tax overhaul. Opponents of the rollback argue it could turn religious organizations and charities into new conduits for undisclosed political money. The Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated that provision would cost taxpayers $2.1 billion.

Scalise called HR 1 “an attempt to rewrite the rules in favor of the Democratic Party by instituting greater regulations on Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

The GOP has also criticized the measure for its cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that Congress would need to appropriate nearly $2.6 billion over six years to fund provisions. Republicans and outside conservative groups say that’s an underestimate.

“As the CBO report shows, this legislation leaves the door open for lawmakers to direct billions of dollars toward publicly-financed campaign contributions and the government-run infrastructure to support them,” said Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, who serves as the top Republican on the House Budget Committee.

One amendment wouldn’t cost taxpayers much but could instead hit the personal bottom lines of ex-members of Congress.

The revolving-door amendment, offered by Minnesota Democratic freshman Dean Phillips, aims to prevent former members of Congress and their aides from circumventing current prohibitions on lobbying immediately upon leaving Capitol Hill. House members and senior Hill staffers face a one-year cooling-off period during which they are not supposed to lobby. Senators’ ban lasts two years.

But many engage in strategic counseling for clients, a sort of “unlobbying” that has become standard practice. Typically, former members and senior aides will guide their colleagues about whom to contact and what to say, but not actually make the call themselves.

“The ‘strategic consulting loophole’ has all but gutted the current revolving door restrictions,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, who is pushing for Phillips’ amendment. “Former officials are allowed to do any and all lobbying activity immediately after leaving public service — from joining a lobbying firm to organizing an entire lobbying campaign. They are only prohibited from picking up the telephone and making a ‘lobbying contact’ during the cooling off period.”

The Phillips’ amendment would close that “loophole,” Holman said, by also banning former officials from conducting any lobbying activity designed to facilitate a lobbying contact for someone else.

Celia Gisleson contributed to this report.