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Wide splits evident on voting and campaign finance as Senate panel takes up overhaul

First attempt at change in 17 years draws hours of debate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, attend the Rules Committee markup of the elections, campaign finance and ethics overhaul known as S 1.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, attend the Rules Committee markup of the elections, campaign finance and ethics overhaul known as S 1. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans and Democrats on an evenly divided Senate committee demonstrated Tuesday how far apart they are on political spending, voting, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws as they debated a sweeping 800-page bill.

Charges of Democrats trying to grab power and allegations that Republicans in statehouses were seeking to disenfranchise minority voters mixed in with debates over how to mandate financial disclosure for political ads without imposing unconstitutional limits on free speech, and how to make voting easier without opening the door to bad actors who could game the system. 

The bill, known as S 1, which passed the House as HR 1 in March on a mostly party-line vote, would require new disclosures of political spending, mandate minimum standards for such practices as automatic voter registration and early voting, revamp foreign and domestic lobbying rules, create an optional public financing system for congressional campaigns, establish independent commissions to draw congressional maps and restructure the Federal Election Commission, among other provisions. 

Members of the Rules and Administration Committee, which is evenly divided between nine Democrats and nine Republicans, debated some 40 amendments, with most being rejected on tie votes, including a substitute amendment that Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had wanted to swap for the original text.

Pushing the bill through the Senate is a stated top priority for the chamber’s majority leader, Charles E. Schumer, even as he still faces long odds to enactment. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said stopping it is an urgent matter for him. 

Both serve on the Rules panel and offered opening remarks Tuesday. McConnell himself offered amendments, including one that would divert money from an optional public financing system for political campaigns toward fighting the opioid epidemic; that amendment was also rejected.   

In the end, after nearly nine hours, the bill was not reported out of the committee because the vote was tied 9-9, but Schumer can still bring the measure to the floor.

“We don’t have very many lengthy or spirited markups in this committee,” said the panel’s top Republican, Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is not seeking reelection next year. “It actually appears the cycle is very close to the appearance of the cicada, about every 17 years we have a significant markup in this committee.”

Many of the partisan fights among the lawmakers focused on the public financing, changes to voter identification laws and a provision that would change the FEC from an evenly divided bipartisan agency to a five-person commission. They also veered into discussions over an amendment from Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia over whether volunteers could provide water for thirsty voters. His amendment was also rejected.  

Here are five takeaways from the first eight hours of debate over the measure: 

Public funds

One of the bill’s signature provisions sets out an optional public financing system that would allow congressional candidates to tap into a 6-to-1 matching program for small donations of up to $200. To pay for that, the bill would create a Freedom from Influence Fund, which would come from additional assessments, or surcharges, on fines already paid by tax cheats or companies fined for criminal or civil penalties. Blunt offered an unsuccessful amendment to strike that portion from the bill. 

In addition to McConnell’s amendment to divert the money for opioid efforts, Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith offered another amendment, which was also rejected, to direct the money to rural hospitals. But the point of their amendments was to say that they believe public money can be better spent, instead of financing political campaigns.

“We don’t need welfare for politicians,” Texas Republican Ted Cruz said.

Advocates of the system, though, say it would help people without a network of big donors to run for office. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks Tuesday during the Senate Rules markup of the S 1 overhaul. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hints of bipartisanship 

Despite the partisan rancor and tie-vote stalemate over most of the amendments, some actually managed to woo votes from both sides of the aisle.

Virginia Democrat Mark Warner convinced his colleagues to agree, 13-5, to an amendment that would require the government to issue a report on voting by mail for military servicemembers, including a study of how quickly their votes are counted. 

The panel, by a voice vote, agreed to another amendment from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., that would keep in place a program in her state that allows servicemembers to vote electronically. 

Senators on the committee also approved an amendment  from California Democrat Alex Padilla that would give the U.S. Postal Service more leeway in processing mailed ballots on the day they arrive “to the maximum extent practicable.” And Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, won a 10-8 vote to require the administration to develop cybersecurity guidelines for elections.

King also joined the Republicans on the panel in supporting an amendment from Hyde-Smith that would exclude people convicted of crimes against children from the bill’s restoration of voting rights to people who had served their sentences for felony convictions.     

FEC revamped

Republicans on the panel blasted the bill’s overhaul of the FEC, the agency that enforces federal election laws. The agency has often deadlocked on enforcement decisions because it is evenly divided. The measure would restructure it to a five-person commission, giving one party an advantage.  

It was originally created, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, so that it could not become “a partisan weapon,” said Bradley A. Smith, a former Republican commissioner who is now chairman of the Institute for Free Speech.  

The change is in response to frustration from campaign finance overhaul advocates, who have criticized the agency for deadlocking too often and not enforcing the laws.

In a spirited debate with King over the bill’s attempt to make nonprofit groups that run political ads disclose their donors, McConnell said a Supreme Court ruling in 1958 blocked Alabama’s attempt to find out who was funding the NAACP to protect the group’s donors from intimidation. King said that was different from political ads from so-called dark money groups, but McConnell said the bill would put a partisan FEC in charge of deciding which speech was not entitled to protection. 

Outside money

Even as the bill aims to limit money in politics, outside groups have already invested big in trying to win over voters to their side. 

The GOP group One Nation, which is affiliated with the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, launched a $1.85 million TV and radio ad campaign Tuesday targeting potentially vulnerable senators, including Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly. The ads, which attack the legislation, also are running in New Hampshire, West Virginia, Nevada and Montana

On the other side, the liberal groups End Citizens United and Let America Vote launched a $12 million television ad campaign in advance of the 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 are advocating its elimination so a bill can be passed on a simple majority vote.

Fundraising and mobilizing 

Political and advocacy groups used the markup as a hook for fundraising and mobilization pleas. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee called the Senate markup “HUGE progress” toward enactment of the measure and urged supporters: “You can help! Chip in.”

Fair Fight Action, the organization founded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, sent out an action alert that included a link to the phone numbers of all senators and urged supporters to “call now to ask that they support the urgent passage of the For the People Act to protect our democracy.” 

The Republican National Committee sent out a lengthy email detailing its concerns with various portions of the bill, calling it a “windfall for career politicians.”

Consideration of the bill — which says that D.C. residents deserve voting representation that “only statehood can provide” — also promoted a fundraising appeal from the group DC Vote. 

Tennessee Republican Bill Hagerty offered an amendment, which was rejected along party lines, to change the language in the bill to say that Washington, D.C., should not be a state. 

Megan Mineiro contributed to this report. 

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