Politics

Voting rights bill advances in Senate over GOP objections

Washington — The Senate on Tuesday advanced S. 1, the For the People Act, setting up a floor vote for the controversial bill. Senators clashed over voting rights and election procedures for hours in a contentious committee meeting to consider amendments for the massive bill.

Democrats claim the legislation is necessary to counter new voting restrictions being considered by multiple states. But Republicans argued that the bill is a naked power grab, and voted down an amendment that would have made several changes to the legislation based on feedback from state and local election officials.

The committee deadlocked 9-9 along party lines on whether to approve the bill. The committee can’t report it out, but Senate rules allow Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the bill to the floor. All nine Republicans voted against the bill, even though some amendments proposed by GOP senators had been adopted.

The House approved the For the People Act by a vote of 220 to 210 in March, with one Democrat joining all Republicans in voting against it. The bill would overhaul government ethics and campaign finance laws, and seek to strengthen voting rights by creating automatic voter registration and expanding access to early and absentee voting. It also includes some measures that would require states to overhaul their registration systems, limit states’ ability to remove people from voter rolls, increase federal funds for election security and reform the redistricting process.

In a sign of how critical the issue is for both parties, Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both appeared at the “markup” session before the Senate Rules Committee, a rarity for committee meetings to consider bills.

In his statement, Schumer argued that there was a reactionary effort by states to limit voting rights, “led by one party and compelled by the most dishonest president in American history.” Several Republican-controlled states have recently passed or are considering legislation to restrict voting rights, in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s electoral loss and a rise in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. Opponents argue such bills disproportionately affect minority and poorer voters, who tend to support the Democratic Party.

“In the wake of the 2020 elections, deemed the most secure in American history of the previous administration, former President Trump told a lie, a big lie, that the election was stolen,” Schumer said. “In states across the country, Republican legislatures have seized on the big lie to restrict the franchise.”

He argued that the laws considered and passed in Republican-controlled states “carry the stench of oppression” and “the smell of bigotry.” Schumer also said that the “price of admission” in the current Republican Party is “silence in the face of provable lies.” A recent CBS News poll showed 70% of Republicans do not consider President Biden the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

But McConnell countered that Democrats were making “hysterical attacks,” citing the increased turnout across the country in the 2020 election. He argued the bill would let “Washington Democrats dictate the terms of their own reelection races” and said “popular safeguards like voter ID would be neutered.”

McConnell said federal election bills, like the 2002 Help America Vote Act, need to be written and passed on a bipartisan basis.

“Our democracy is not in crisis,” McConnell said, without addressing Schumer’s comments on Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. “This is a partisan effort to take over how you conduct elections in our country.”

Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, who oversaw the markup session, proposed a manager’s amendment that revised several controversial parts of the House-passed bill. But the amendment failed with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against with a final tally of 9 to 9. 

Only a few of dozens of proposed amendments have been approved, including an amendment that would examine the impact of widespread mail-in voting for active-duty service members passed with bipartisan support, and one to maintain e-voting for members of the military. Another amendment to restrict felons convicted of crimes against children to vote narrowly passed, after a contentious back-and-forth between Klobuchar and Senator Ted Cruz. Shortly thereafter, an amendment to restrict felons convicted of murder narrowly failed.

Despite hours of contentious debate, most of the amendments offered by both parties failed due to the even split of the committee. Amendments that would have stricken provisions on public campaign financing and ethics reform, which have been criticized by Republicans, also failed.

McConnell offered some amendments, including one to undo a provision in S. 1 that would revamp the Federal Elections Commission so that it would have a 3-to-2 split, instead of being evenly divided. Unlike Schumer, McConnell attended the meeting for most of the day.

The FEC has not been able to appoint a general counsel in seven years because of the even division of the panel. McConnell argued that the current 3-to-3 partisan deadlock of the panel “is a decision.”

“I don’t think there’s any dysfunction at all,” McConnell said. However, his amendment failed along party lines.

Another amendment introduced by McConnell, which also failed, would have struck many of the campaign finance disclosure requirements. Democrats argued it’s about ensuring voters know who is paying for election-related expenses, while McConnell and other Republicans said it would infringe on protected political speech. 

“That is precisely what this is about: quiet the voices of citizens, particularly who gather together in 501(c)4s in order to express their views,” McConnell said, referring to outside groups who don’t have to disclose their donors. “The founding fathers would be appalled, appalled to think that we’re trying to prevent political discourse at the heart of the first amendment.”

Some of the provisions already in the bill are broadly popular. A Pew Research poll from April found that 61% of Americans support automatic registration for citizens who are eligible to vote, 78% support making early and in-person voting available to voters for at least two weeks prior to Election Day and 76% support requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting. But county election clerks and state and local election officials from both parties have also warned that some of the bill’s provisions relating to election administration would be too difficult and expensive to implement.

Klobuchar’s proposed manager’s amendment would have revised several controversial parts of the House-passed bill. The lengthy proposal contained multiple individual amendments offered by the senator managing debate on the bill. “We have a good bill with broadly popular positions,” Klobuchar said in her opening statement on Tuesday. “I urge my Republican colleagues not to disregard these efforts.”

But congressional Republicans unanimously oppose the bill, arguing that it amounts to a federal takeover of state-run elections. An aide to GOP Senator Roy Blunt, the ranking member of the committee, told CBS News that Republicans planned to “focus their arguments on the numerous ways in which S.1 will make elections less fair and less secure” and that Blunt “expects a lengthy and robust debate on the bill.”

“This is, in my view, a bad bill with bad policies that creates more problems than it does solutions,” Blunt said in his opening statement on Tuesday.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz repeatedly slammed the bill, calling it “Jim Crow 2.0.” Cruz falsely claimed that the bill would allow undocumented immigrants to vote, and that this would dilute the vote of citizens, thus amounting to voter suppression.

“The Democrats want to stop the voters from voting Democrats out of power,” Cruz argued.

Schumer has promised to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote if it advances out of committee as expected. But Republicans are expected to filibuster the bill, setting up a challenge for Democrats on how to respond to Republican obstruction of their priorities.

Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance on the Senate floor, but Democrats only hold a 50-seat majority, meaning they would need support from 10 Republicans to pass the For the People Act. Some progressives and outside advocacy groups have pushed for eliminating the filibuster, which would allow for legislation to be approved by a simple majority.

A new poll from Fix Our Senate, a coalition of organizations advocating for the filibuster to be eliminated, found that 50% of voters nationwide support reforming the filibuster once informed that “under the current rules for the Senate, all it takes is a single senator to block the majority from bringing legislation to a vote by creating a filibuster that takes 60 senators to end.”

The poll also found that 46% of voters said they would feel positively if their senator supported filibuster reform, compared to 26% who would feel negatively towards their senator. According to the online poll, which was conducted in April with 1,218 people who voted in 2020, 74% of voters support reintroducing the talking filibuster, which would force senators to stay on the floor continuously to block a bill; this proposal is also supported by 69% of Republicans. 

Another proposed reform would eliminate the filibuster for certain types of bills, like those related to voting rights, which is supported by 62% of all voters. But while eliminating the filibuster outright has support from 58% of voters as a whole, only 35% of Republicans support taking this step.

“The polling affirms that when people learn what’s at stake, they care more about issues like protecting our right to vote than preserving the filibuster — and a lot is at stake right now with Republicans passing egregious voter suppression laws across the country,” Fix Our Senate spokesperson Eli Zupnick said in a statement to CBS News.

However, at least two Senate Democrats have expressed opposition to ending the filibuster, meaning that the rules are unlikely to change any time soon. One of the most vocal opponents of eliminating the filibuster, Senator Joe Manchin, has also expressed skepticism about the For the People Act. In a March statement, Manchin said he believed senators should come together to work on bipartisan voting legislation.

“We can and we must reform our federal elections together — not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans to restore the faith and trust in our democracy,” he said.

Manchin said on April 30 in an interview with WV MetroNews that he would “vote no” on the bill “as it exists today.” On Monday, he told reporters at the Capitol that he had not looked over the changes by Klobuchar, but said he was “open” to hearing more and was “looking at everything.”

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