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Democrats seek momentum for voting, political money overhaul

Bill that died in GOP-run Senate gets number symbolizing its priority

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is sponsoring a sweeping overhaul of voting and campaign finance rules.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is sponsoring a sweeping overhaul of voting and campaign finance rules. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats, on the cusp of holding the slimmest possible majority in the chamber, signaled Tuesday a symbolic first order of business: a major overhaul of the nation’s voting, campaign finance and ethics laws.

The measure, dubbed HR 1 in the House and now christened in the Senate as S 1 to signify that it is a top priority, died in the GOP-controlled Senate last Congress. It could see the same fate again in the 117th Congress unless Democrats remove the 60-vote threshold to end filibusters on legislation, a change the party’s base eagerly wants but remains in doubt.

Advocates pushing for the overhaul said they were mobilizing anew to build public support in both chambers. House Democrats expect to take up the measure as soon as this month or next, congressional aides said, as it closely tracks the same bill in the last Congress.

Congressional Democrats, as well as representatives of outside groups pushing for passage of the package, said the overhaul would help shore up voters’ confidence in a democracy damaged by a violent attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and after four years of corruption scandals and flouting of ethics norms during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“I think that every American has received a message that the integrity of our elections is incredibly important, and so in terms of accountability for the events of this past year, there’s probably nothing more important than passing the For the People Act,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.

But he would not predict what the party will do about the filibuster. “It’s too soon to say how we’ll pursue this,” he said.

The bill would create nationwide automatic voter registration and require paper ballots in all jurisdictions. It would set up a 6-to-1 optional public financing system to pay for congressional campaigns and tighten disclosure rules for political groups and super PACs that spend money to influence elections.

It would require early voting and expand voting by mail, two changes made hastily in some states to cope with the pandemic in 2020 that Trump and many of his GOP allies falsely charged led to fraud. Some House Republicans have responded with their own bill that would sharply curtail such practices in federal elections.

The bill would also put new limitations on some behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts, require more disclosure of online political ads and create nonpartisan redistricting efforts, among numerous other provisions.

Filibuster pressure

“Ultimately, they’re going to have to make a choice about whether they’re going to allow antiquated filibuster rules to prevent repairing our democracy,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance overhaul group Democracy 21.

The voting, political money and ethics measure is hardly the only piece of legislation that will generate calls to end the filibuster. Liberal activists are calling on Senate Democrats to undo it in order to pass a number of priorities including an increase to the federal minimum wage as well as changes to immigration, health care, environmental and other laws.

“I don’t see how the Democrats — and I don’t think they will — allow Sen. Mitch McConnell spend the next two years blocking everything he objects to in terms of major legislation,” Wertheimer added, referring to the Republican leader from Kentucky. “We’ll see what happens.”

In the last Congress, every House Democrat signed on to HR 1 as a cosponsor. Wertheimer said “there may be a few Democrats who have some problems” with certain provisions, but he still expects them all to vote for the bill this year, too. “Every Democrat in the House voted for this bill in the last congress, and there is no basis for their now abandoning the bill,” he added.

The bill does not include a provision making Election Day a federal holiday, a policy that McConnell blasted when it was under consideration in the last Congress.

Limiting lobbyists

Some of the provisions in the bill would overlap with an executive order President-elect Joe Biden is expected to issue after his inauguration Wednesday that would limit the lobbying and corporate bonuses of people who become government officials.

Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for the campaign overhaul group End Citizens United, said that executive order would mark “a return to a baseline, which is welcome because the Trump administration was very corrupt,” but that such administrative actions would not eliminate the need for the HR 1 legislation.

“Rooting out corruption and making voting easier, the last four years with the most corrupt president, have made these measures more important than ever,” he added. “It’s also a meaningful response to the insurrections. These are reforms that are grounded in small d democracy.”

Another advocate working to prod lawmakers on the bill, Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy coalition, said grassroots supporters were working to build momentum.

“Activists are super engaged on this, especially after the violent attack on our democracy,” she said.

Democrat Jim Manley, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, noted that signaling it as a top priority “doesn’t guarantee its passage” or enactment. But, he said, “as far as I can tell, everybody’s on board” with the bill.

However, Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat seen as a potentially pivotal vote on a number of matters, said Tuesday there was “no conversation going on” regarding the overhaul bill.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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