A sweeping elections and campaign finance overhaul sought by Democrats to blunt Republican state-level efforts to restrict voting access faced a contentious debate Tuesday in a key Senate committee.
The clashes over its provisions underscore the steep odds Democrats face in enacting the far-reaching legislation, which touches on everything from rules for early voting to public funding for Senate candidates.
The Senate Rules Committee deadlocked 9-9 along partisan lines Tuesday evening on passing the bill out of committee. But Democrats say the tie vote still gives them procedural options to bring the measure to the Senate floor for consideration, a step Democratic leaders are expected to take.
“This is not the last you will hear,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the committee, said minutes after the vote.
The For the People Act had faced a tough road even before the committee took it up. The Senate is divided evenly between the parties, and at least one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has expressed reservations about moving forward with a far-reaching measure without bipartisan support.
On Tuesday, Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, repeatedly took aim at the 800-plus-page legislation with a raft of amendments that forced Democrats to cast a series of controversial votes.
One amendment offered by McConnell, for instance, would have redirected the bill’s public funding for candidates to fight the opioid epidemic instead. It was not approved.
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The legislation, a version of which passed the House earlier this year, would make vast changes to elections – altering everything from voter registration to early voting. It would mandate 15 days of early voting, allow same-day voter registration and limit states’ ability to curb mail-in voting and the use of ballot boxes. It also rewrites federal campaign finance rules, sets out new ethics requirements for the president and seeks to end partisan gerrymandering.
In a sign of the high stakes, both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell attended parts of Tuesday’s marathon markup – a rare move for the chamber’s leaders. And they cast the ongoing national debate over voting rights in starkly different terms.
Schumer said the legislation was needed to counter a wave of new voting restrictions in Republican-led states that carry what he called “the stench of oppression.”
“We’re witnessing an attempt at the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow,” the New York Democrat said as debate opened on the measure.
McConnell said the bill would give too much power to Democrats to set the ground rules for election administration and the regulation of campaign finance laws.
“Our democracy is not in crisis,” the Kentucky Republican countered, “and we are not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it.”
The legislation has emerged as a top priority for Democrats as Republicans in several states – including Iowa, Georgia and Florida – pass new voting restrictions into law this year. Other GOP-led states are considering their own limitations on voting – triggered in large measure by former President Donald Trump’s repeated false claims that election fraud contributed to his loss last November. There was no evidence of widespread fraud in the election.
On Tuesday, Schumer slammed Republicans for their willingness to accept Trump’s falsehoods, pointing to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s likely ouster this week from House GOP leadership as one consequence.
“The big lie is spreading like a cancer among Republicans,” he said. “Liz Cheney spoke truth to power and for that, she’s being fired.”
Faced with a barrage of new restrictions, many Democrats and voting rights advocates view the For the People Act as one of the few ways remaining to counter the raft of state laws. But it’s unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative filibuster on the Senate floor.
As a result, some Democrats – including members of the Congressional Black Caucus – have begun arguing that their party should advance more narrowly focused voting proposals. And Manchin recently told The Inter-Mountain newspaper that he’s hoping to hash out a compromise proposal.
During the daylong debate Tuesday, McConnell and other Republicans advanced a series of proposed changes to the broad legislation. McConnell proposed, in one instance, striking provisions that required third-party nonprofit groups involved in politics and policy battles to disclose any donations larger than $10,000.
The information could be wielded to intimidate and silence contributors, he argued. “This is about turning the federal government into the speech police,” McConnell said.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who usually aligns with Democrats, said the public has a right to know who’s trying to influence elections.
McConnell’s measure failed – as did a slew of other amendments, including one from Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia that sought to overturn a new law in his home state that criminalizes approaching voters in line to give them water or food.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican, sought unsuccessfully to change a provision that would allow voters without identification to sign sworn statements in lieu of providing their IDs. Voters lacking ID would have cast provisional ballots only, under her language.
Supporters say voter ID laws guard against fraud, while voting rights groups have argued that ID laws could disenfranchise voters because obtaining the identification could prove costly and burdensome.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said it was “condescending … of some Democrats to say minorities can’t figure out how to get a photo ID.”
“I’m Hispanic,” Cruz said. “Somehow I managed to figure out how to get a driver’s license.”
The senators did agree on a handful of amendments – including one that would bar them from using any public funds directed to their campaigns to personally enrich themselves or their family members.
This story has been updated with further developments Tuesday.
CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.