Senate Panel to Weigh Democrats’ Election Overhaul

The Rules Committee could advance a landmark voting rights expansion, as Washington tries to blunt ballot restrictions by Republican-controlled statehouses.

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A key Senate panel is debating Democrats’ election overhaul, but it faces a filibuster in the full Senate.

A protest in Austin, Texas, last week against Republican state legislators’ efforts to restrict voting rights.Credit…Mikala Compton/Reuters

May 11, 2021, 8:28 a.m. ET

A key Senate committee on Tuesday began debating Democrats’ sweeping elections overhaul, muscling toward a vote on a landmark national expansion of voting rights meant to blunt ballot restrictions by Republican-controlled statehouses.

Liberals who have made the bill, H.R. 1, their top legislative priority hailed the debate and anticipated vote in the Senate Rules Committee as a significant milestone. If enacted, it would effectively override laws emerging in states like Georgia and Florida that raise barriers to vote with national requirements meant to lower them — like automatic voter registration, no-excuse early and mail-in voting and the re-enfranchisement of former felons.

But with Republicans digging in to oppose the 800-page bill, the parties were expected to deadlock on a final vote by the committee, which is evenly divided between the two parties. That outcome would deny the bill its outright approval, and complicate an already steep path forward to passage on a Senate floor, where Democrats’ only chance of making it law most likely requires them to change chamber rules to bypass the legislative filibuster.

During a tense debate on Tuesday, Democrats feigned trying to build bipartisan support. But they spent much of their energy attacking Republicans for what they called an orchestrated campaign, staked on false claims of election fraud by President Donald J. Trump, to make it harder for Americans of color and young people to vote.

“What are my Republican colleagues in the Senate going to do?” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said at the session’s outset, calling the debate a “legacy defining choice.”

“These laws carry the stench of oppression, the smell of bigotry,” Mr. Schumer added. “Are you going to stamp it out, or are you going to spread it?”

Republicans showed no signs they would change course, and adamantly defended states’ rights to set elections laws. Mr. Schumer’s Republican counterpart, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, slammed the bill as a liberal power grab “cooked up at the Democratic National Committee and designed to advantage one side to the disadvantage of the other.”

“Our democracy is not in crisis, and we’re not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it,” he said.

They were prepared to offer dozens of amendments trying to strike or draw attention to provisions they find particularly objectionable, like the restructuring of the Federal Election Commission and establishment of a public financing system for congressional candidates. Both parties said amendment debate could push a final vote on the bill into Wednesday morning.

Democrats will also propose technical and substantive tweaks during Tuesday’s session to address concerns raised primarily by state elections administrators who complained that some voting provisions would be expensive or onerous to implement. For now, though, they do not plan to remove any of the bill’s main pillars, which also include strict new ethics requirements for the White House and Congress, an end to partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, and new disclosure requirements for dark money groups.

Liberal activists are putting intense pressure on Democrats to change Senate rules to allow it to pass with a simple majority, rather than the 60 votes currently required to break a filibuster. Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has rejected that approach so far. He has called for narrower legislation focused on expanding early voting and ballot security, and insists he will not vote to change Senate rules around the filibuster.

Democratic senators plan to meet privately Thursday afternoon to debate how to move forward, according to two Democratic officials. Proponents of the bill fear that if Congress does not act quickly, there will not be time to implement the changes before 2022.

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