The For the People Act, a package of voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics reforms, took the next step toward a Senate floor vote after the Senate Rules Committee debated and amended the bill on Tuesday amid universal opposition from Senate Republicans.
The bill, which passed the House on a near party-line vote in March, would set a national floor for elections by mandating states implement election reforms including early voting, no-excuse absentee ballots, and automatic and same-day voter registration. It would also restore voting rights to ex-felons while making it harder to purge voter rolls, among many other things.
Debate over it comes as Republican-run states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Montana and Texas, are enacting laws to make it harder to vote. These voter restriction laws come in response to former President Donald Trump’s lie that he did not lose the November presidential election, a falsehood that inspired the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol aimed at disrupting the peaceful transfer of power.
“The stakes could not be higher,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), chair of the rules committee and a lead sponsor of the bill. “We need to take these threats to our democracy head on with immediate action to restore Americans’ confidence in our political system.”
The final vote was tied, 9-9, to advance the bill out of the committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans remaining universally opposed to the bill.
Legislation usually requires a majority committee vote to be sent on to the Senate floor, but under the rules negotiated after Democrats won a 50-seat majority in January, the bill can be discharged from committee by a simple majority vote on the floor of the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised a floor vote on the bill and declared that “everything is on the table,” including changing the Senate’s filibuster rules in order to pass the bill in order to override the growing state-level voter restrictions.
“These laws carry the stench of oppression, the smell of bigotry,” Schumer said of the Republican-backed state laws. “Are you going to stamp it out, or are you going to allow it to be spread? I plead with my Republican colleagues: Think twice.”
But Republicans remained opposed to the bill, labeling it a “brazen power grab” designed to keep Democrats in power “forever.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, referred to the bill’s expansion of voting rights as “Jim Crow 2.0.”
Committee Republicans voted universally against both the bill and the manager’s amendment introduced by Klobuchar proposing significant changes to the law, including those suggested by Republican and Democratic election officials.
The committee did adopt a number of amendments from members of both parties.
Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s amendment to strike language from the bill that would have overridden an e-voting pilot program for military voters in her state of West Virginia was adopted in committee. Two of Cruz’s amendments were also adopted: one to eliminate the category of religion from information sought about people serving on the nonpartisan redistricting panels the bill requires, and, two, a ban on candidates who participate in the bill’s voluntary public election financing program from paying in any way themselves or their family members. The committee also adopted an amendment from Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) and Cruz limiting who can collect and return absentee ballots for voters.
While the bill incorporated legislative language first proposed by Republican lawmakers when it was introduced in the House and throughout the Senate committee process, the adoption of these amendments goes further in incorporating bipartisan ideas into the bill. This has been the primary objective of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the only Democrat who has not co-sponsored the bill.
Manchin declared in March that he supported elements of the bill but wanted to find bipartisan support and incorporate as many ideas from Republicans as possible. Schumer had supported Manchin’s efforts, knowing the West Virginia senator’s vote is likely to determine the fate of the bill.
With universal opposition from Republicans, the bill is expected to face a filibuster on the floor of the Senate ― possibly the first of President Joe Biden’s presidency. That means it can pass only if Democrats change the Senate’s filibuster rules, something Manchin remains opposed to. Whether or not Democrats find a way to put the bill on Biden’s desk will hinge on if Manchin’s pursuit of bipartisan input is exhausted. Tuesday’s markup was just the latest step on that journey.