Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is leading the effort by Senate Democrats to introduce a companion bill to a major political and electoral reform bill introduced by House Democrats on Jan. 4.
“This was the message that Democrats ran on and won in 2018 ― fixing our broken democracy ― and we intend to keep the promise to the American people,” Udall said.
The Senate companion bill will largely mirror the proposed sweeping reforms of the House’s For the People Act on voting rights, campaign finance, disclosure and ethics. The bills will differ slightly on campaign financing proposals for each chamber. The Senate’s public financing system would be based on Sen. Dick Durbin’s Fair Elections Now Act, which provides participating candidates with grants and matching funds for small donations.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the House bill’s chief sponsor, announced on Thursday that the For the People Act has been co-sponsored by 221 Democrats ― enough to pass in the House.
The chances of Udall’s bill passing the Senate are slim to none, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not only refuses to bring House Democratic bills to a vote but also is the most vociferous opponent in politics of campaign finance reforms.
Udall said he believes that Democrats can find ways to force votes on the package on the Senate floor in spite of McConnell’s assured intransigence. This could take the form of asking for consent to vote on the floor, putting a privileged motion to a vote or offering the proposal during the so-called vote-a-ramas that occur for amendments to budget legislation.
Even if such votes fail and the bill’s odds in the Senate are poor, he said he thinks the effort will help inform the public about which party wants to enact campaign finance, election and ethics reforms.
“At the end of the day, the American people won’t have any doubt about which party is serious about getting corruption out of politics and which party wants to keep the status quo,” Udall said.
“Public support for these kinds of reforms is overwhelming across party lines,” Udall said. “It’s just the Republican leadership that doesn’t see it that way.”
But Republican leadership is unlikely to yield to public opinion anytime soon. That’s why many reform advocates expect that it will take a few years for any reform bill to pass and be signed into law.
“We envision a three-to-five-year battle,” Fred Wertheimer, the president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21, said at a press conference where 69 activist groups announced support for the For the People Act on Wednesday.
Wertheimer, a veteran campaign finance reformer who helped pass the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the McCain-Feingold law of 2002, noted that it took five years from the introduction of the McCain-Feingold bill in 1997 to its enactment. That bill passed through a Republican House, cleared a Senate that Democrats controlled by just two votes and was signed by a Republican president. That bill passed because a citizen-led movement forced Congress and the president to act, he said.
“Citizens will rise up again to win this battle,” Wertheimer said.
Udall did not want to put a timeline on when he expects his bill to be able to get approved in the Senate but echoed Wertheimer’s remarks that passing reform legislation doesn’t happen overnight.
“Reform is not for the short-winded,” Udall said.
The long slog means that reform may have to wait until President Donald Trump leaves office ― even though some of the provisions in the bill are meant to rein conflicts of interest and corruption that he is accused of. But reform advocates agree that the need for this legislation precedes and outlasts Trump’s time on the political stage.
“It’s not just about opposing Trump,” Leah Greenberg, a co-director of the progressive grassroots group Indivisible, said at Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s about opposing the forces that allowed him to rise.”
“These issues existed long before President Trump and will remain,” Udall agreed. “And they’re going to get worse long after Trump, unless we act.”