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Massive voting and ethics bill faces first test in divided Senate

Democratic measure would counter elections changes in red states

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell
both serve on the committee that will take up a sweeping overhaul to voting and ethics rules on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both serve on the committee that will take up a sweeping overhaul to voting and ethics rules on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Democrats fume over Republican-crafted state laws putting new limits on voting, a Senate panel will take up a sweeping bill Tuesday that would try to use the federal government’s power to make voting easier nationwide.  

Activists are using multimillion-dollar advertising and grassroots campaigns to push for the bill, applying pressure to some Democrats in the 50-50 Senate. But while the 800-page overhaul of election, campaign finance and ethics laws known as S 1 (HR 1 in the House) is likely to generate lots of heat at the hearing, there is not expected to be much action on changes to the measure in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

That’s because a power-sharing agreement reached by leaders of both parties at the start of the Senate term gave the Rules panel nine Democrats and nine Republicans, and the committee cannot adopt amendments on a tie vote. As a result, any real action to modify the measure would happen on the Senate floor some time in the future. 

“I’m expecting that this will end in a 9-9 vote on reporting it out, and then it will go to the floor,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the advocacy group Democracy 21 that is pushing for the bill’s passage. He added that Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has committed to bringing the measure to the floor of the chamber. 

Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both serve on the Rules Committee. And given that both have made the bill a priority — Schumer to pass it and McConnell to stop it — they are likely to participate.

McConnell, a spokesman said, “will certainly be active at the markup.” 

The measure would revamp how congressional candidates finance their campaigns, and it would set minimum standards for federal elections and voting, including mandating same-day voter registration. To reduce the influence of big campaign donors and provide a way for less affluent candidates, who don’t have networks of big donors, to run for office, the bill would create an optional system under which $6 in public funds are provided for every $1 a candidate raises from donors giving less than $200. Those funds would come from additional assessments, or surcharges, on fines already paid by tax cheats or companies fined for criminal or civil penalties.

The measure would also establish new ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and Supreme Court justices. And, in a nod to the scandals of the Trump era, it would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose 10 years’ worth of tax returns.

Democrats in both chambers have been largely unified in public support of the measure with some rare exceptions, including Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, a co-sponsor of the House version, who ultimately voted against it over concerns about the public financing portions as well as those that would establish independent commissions to redraw congressional district lines. 

Boosting the bill 

The liberal groups End Citizens United and Let America Vote launched a $12 million television ad campaign in advance of the Senate committee markup in pivotal states, including Arizona and West Virginia, the respective states of Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin III, who have said they don’t support ending the Senate filibuster for legislation. Senators need 60 votes to break a filibuster, and many organizations have focused on advocating the abolishment of the filibuster for legislation so a bill can be passed on a simple majority vote. 

Manchin has also said he wants the Senate to take up a bipartisan overhaul, saying in a statement this spring: “Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”

The End Citizens United campaign also has ads airing in Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire, states with incumbents who may have competitive reelection races in 2022. 

Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said his organization is working with local leaders in West Virginia to keep the pressure on Manchin. “HR 1/S 1 is a high-water mark of coordination among progressive groups and political allies,” he said.  

Green said the measure, which passed the House in 2019 and again in March, had taken on more urgency with Republican-controlled states, including Georgia and Florida, passing new voting laws. Those measures are being adopted in the name of providing better security against fraud that former President Donald Trump contends, without evidence, was rampant in 2020.

“When S 1 was written, it was a beautiful thing, but the authors could not imagine all of the evil we’ve since seen in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere, so some fixes around the edges will likely need to be made,” Green said. 

Keeping it together

Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules panel, offered a substitute amendment with changes especially to the voting and elections portions of the bill, including extending deadlines for some of the changes. 

Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, which is lobbying in support of the bill, said the changes would give states more time to comply with new requirements, such as mandates for paper ballots.  

“It’s still keeping the big-ticket pieces all together,” she said. “The bill is, as it was, grand in scope to repair our democracy.”

Conservative groups will also keep their eyes on the markup. 

David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, which opposes the new campaign finance regulations, said he doesn’t expect any substantive changes to the bill 

“I’m sure both sides will have amendments that will make it politically difficult for the other side,” he said. 

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