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Liberal groups pressing for voting, ethics overhaul undaunted by Manchin opposition

Democrat said lack of GOP support turned him against bill

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III’s written declaration of opposition to his party’s signature voting, campaign finance and ethics overhaul did nothing to upend liberal campaigns in support of the measure.

A collection of Democratic senators and House members, along with a roster of aligned outside groups, planned to go forward with a previously scheduled Wednesday event at the Capitol to buoy the legislation, which suffered a blow over the weekend when the West Virginia senator said he would vote against it because it has no Republican support.

Outside supporters stressed Monday that they were committed to keeping intact the sweeping, 800-plus page package, dubbed HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate, saying that any attempts to break it up would not ultimately garner GOP support and would leave crucial reforms by the wayside. 

A separate, forthcoming bill to bolster the Voting Rights Act would also not serve as a viable substitute for the package and would not sufficiently address their concerns over new election laws in Republican-controlled states, liberal advocates said. That measure is also likely weeks or months away from even being introduced in the House. 

“We’re going to continue to drive calls, texts, letters and messages into Senate offices,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause. “We’ll be ramping up especially in West Virginia where West Virginians favor this bill. We’ll continue to mobilize people to demand action from the bottom up.”

Added Michael Sozan of the Center for American Progress: “We can’t sacrifice this legislation on the altar of a bipartisan quest that is not going to come to fruition.”

Critic: Backers in ‘denial’

Republicans, though, say the bill’s fate is already sealed with Manchin’s latest vow. 

“It’s a wake-up call in terms of where they are legislatively on Capitol Hill. It’s dead,” said Michael Toner, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission, who leads the election law and government ethics practice at the firm Wiley.  

“The writing’s been on the wall for some time,” he added. “There’s just been an element of denial.”

In an opinion piece published Sunday in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Manchin said the measure’s lack of GOP support was a dealbreaker for him.

“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act. Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster,” he wrote.

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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said recently that he would force a procedural vote on the elections and campaign finance overhaul later this month, even though an evenly divided committee deadlocked on the bill in May. Members of the Senate Rules and Administration panel voted 9-9, failing to report the bill out of committee, but it’s within Schumer’s purview to bring it to the floor. 

Toner said that the question now for Schumer and the Democrats is, do they put the bill on the floor “and appeal to their base and spend days arguing on the floor and have it lose? Or do they try to regroup and see if some subset of legislative provisions can be enacted on a bipartisan basis?”

‘Full speed ahead’

Outside organizations that back the bill say Schumer must carry on with his plan. 

“We’re going full speed ahead,” said Fred Wertheimer, who leads Democracy 21, a proponent of the legislation. 

He said that a vote on a motion to proceed to the bill, planned for later this month, was always going to be the “opening round of the floor battle, not a decisive one” and that he expects the floor debate to extend into July.  

The 800-page measure 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 FEC, among other provisions.

Advocates for the bill, inside Congress and on the outside, say it is urgently needed to thwart new laws in GOP-controlled states that have sought to roll back some of the 2020 pandemic-era voting practices, such as expanded balloting by mail. The Democratic overhaul would supersede the state laws for congressional and presidential elections.

Wertheimer says time is of the essence to pass the federal measure before the 2022 midterm elections.  

Reversing court takes time

Democrats have yet to introduce the separate bill to restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act, largely gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, that required some states with a history of discrimination to get advance clearance from the Justice Department before making changes to voting laws that could reduce Black voters’ access to the ballot. In Shelby County v. Holder, the high court said there was insufficient evidence that the rampant discrimination that led to those requirements still existed. 

Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin said Monday that the Voting Rights Act expansion would fall under the Judiciary Committee he chairs and Manchin has “said some positive things” about it. But Durbin, the Democrats’ No. 2 leader, said he wanted to talk with Manchin and understand “what he’s willing to say or do.”

Sen. Chris Coons said he did not see the bill, which will likely be named in honor of the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, becoming a substitute for the broader ethics, campaign finance and voting package.

“I think both are important,” the Delaware Democrat told reporters Monday. “You have to deal with the realities of people whose ability to vote are called into question under actions by state legislatures.”

Congressional Democrats seeking to reinstate the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provisions have held hearings aimed at establishing a record that would help such a law survive a likely court challenge.   

“That’s not going to be ready for months,” Wertheimer said. “It won’t override those voter suppression laws already enacted.”  

The 800-page overhaul has attracted big outside money, in support and opposition, much of it targeted in West Virginia. 

End Citizens United and Let America Vote launched a $12 million television ad campaign in May that is ongoing, while GOP-aligned groups such as One Nation, an affiliate of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, invested nearly $2 million in opposition ads this spring. 

Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy coalition, which is organizing the rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, said Manchin’s latest message wouldn’t derail the campaign. 

“We knew this was going to be a big fight with lots of twists and turns,” she said.

Morgan called a choice between the sweeping overhaul and the voting rights measure a “false choice.”

“Both of these bills are necessary, and both do very different things,” she added. The sweeping overhaul “deals with protecting the freedom to vote, setting national standards and getting money out of politics.”

Katherine Tully-McManus and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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