Senators deadlock on major U.S. elections bill in committee vote

By: - May 11, 2021 8:09 pm

The failure of the final vote in committee Tuesday illustrated the uphill battle ahead for the sweeping legislation known as the For the People Act. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder (June 2020 file photo)

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Tuesday tackled a massive voting reforms bill in committee in a heated daylong debate.

But the final vote on the bill by the Senate Rules Committee was a 9-9 tie, which means Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer likely would have to use a Senate procedure to bring the legislation to the floor as he’s vowed to do.

The failure of the final vote as well as a key amendment by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the chair of the panel, showed the uphill battle ahead for the legislation known as the For the People Act.

The bill, S. 1, is a priority for Democrats after state GOP legislators introduced or passed more than 360 bills in 47 states to put in place new voting provisions, including strict voter I.D. access and restrictions on early and mail-in voting. Democrats say these laws will disenfranchise voters, particularly low-income people and voters of color.

Even if the bill is brought to the floor by Schumer, Democrats who control the Senate with a 50-50 split don’t have enough votes to get past an expected filibuster, and it’s unclear how they will pass it and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

Every Democrat has co-sponsored the measure except for Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

Democrats said Congress urgently needs to take action. The House passed its version of the sweeping voting rights, redistricting, campaign finance and ethics reform package earlier this spring on a 220-210 vote.

“These bills that are moving in state capitals across America are not empty threats—they are real efforts to stop people from voting,” Klobuchar said in her opening remarks.

She pointed to Georgia’s recent voting law and another that Florida’s governor signed last week to limit access to ballot boxes, as well as a similar bill that is currently making its way through the Texas legislature.

“We need to take these threats to our democracy head on with immediate action to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system,” she said.

The amendment proposed by Klobuchar was in response to concerns about the federal legislation expressed by local elections officials.

It aimed to give states more time to implement same day voter registration and automatic voter registration. It would also strengthen existing federal requirements for the number of accessible devices in polling locations for people with disabilities.

“We also shortened both of the windows post-Election Day for accepting ballots and resolving signature discrepancies, because we heard from election officials that having these processes go on for too long after Election Day could delay states from certifying the results,” she said.

During the markup, Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, clashed over the bill, with Schumer accusing McConnell of trying to suppress voters, particularly voters of color, to benefit his party.

McConnell in turn charged that Democrats were using the bill to expand their party’s power.

“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,” McConnell said. “The Democratic Party wants to rewrite the ground rules of American politics for partisan benefit.”

Schumer said the bill was needed because Republicans keep perpetuating the lie that former President Donald Trump had the election stolen from him, and use that excuse to introduce restrictive voting bills at the state level.

“These laws are about one thing and one thing alone: making it harder for Americans to vote,” he said. “They are reprehensible, in my judgment. They are anti-democratic, in the judgment of most. And they carry the stench of oppression.”

Schumer also called out Republicans for gearing up to vote one of their own out of a leadership position because she accepted that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

“Liz Cheney spoke truth to power, and for that, she’s being fired,” he said.

House Republicans will have a vote Wednesday to remove Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her position as a Republican leader in the House.

Republican senators on the committee, such as ranking member Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, raised issues with a section of the bill that matches small donations at a 6-to-1 ratio for people running for Congress.

It sets up a Freedom From Influence Fund that is paid for via criminal and civil penalties and settlements from corporations, corporate officers or tax code violators in the top income brackets.

Blunt introduced an amendment to strike the provision from the bill, which failed in a 9-9 vote.

“These would be funds that belong to the American people going to politicians,” Blunt said. “I think there’s a better way to use this money and virtually everybody that I work for in the state of Missouri would think there’s a better way to use this money. This serves only to put money in the pockets of political campaigns. I think it’s a big mistake.”

Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat, introduced an amendment in response to the recently passed Georgia voting law. Ossoff’s amendment would prevent states from imposing restrictions on handing out water or food as people wait in line to vote.

The state provision Ossoff is targeting makes it a misdemeanor to give anything, including food and water, to a voter within 150 feet of the polling place or 25 feet of any voter standing in line, the same distances from which campaign activity is barred. Georgia’s new law allows but does not require poll workers to make self-serve water stations available at voting sites.

“Hear what I’m telling you about the experience of voters in Georgia, who often have to endure these long waiting periods, and know that there are good people motivated by good faith commitment to our democracy, who want to help folks out who are wrapped around the block for three or four hours by offering them a bottle of water or offering them a protein bar, that this should not be a crime punishable by up to a year in jail,” Ossoff said.

“Putting the partisan politics aside, this is a clear example of overreach by the state legislature and exactly the kind of moment where we should exercise our constitutional authority to establish regulations around federal elections,” Ossoff said.

That amendment also failed in a 9-9 vote.

Few amendments introduced by senators were adopted.

One by Sen. Mark Warner, (D-Va.),  was accepted in a 13-5 vote. It would conduct a study on voting by mail for military service members.

Another amendment that was adopted by a voice vote was from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.), to strike a provision in the bill that would have prevented e-voting, which is a pilot online voting program in West Virginia for overseas military and disabled voters.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.