The For the People Act faced a tough road in the Senate even before the Rules Committee began considering the bill, but the bitter debate underscored the near-impossible task Democrats face in advancing the legislation.
Proposed changes to the measure failed repeatedly on 9-9 tie votes as Republicans — led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — took aim at the 800-plus-page bill.
The far-reaching legislation, a version of which passed the House earlier this year, would bring vast changes to elections — altering everything from voter registration to early voting. It also rewrites federal campaign finance rules, sets out new ethics requirements for the president and Supreme Court justices, and seeks to end partisan gerrymandering.
In a sign of the high stakes, both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell attended Tuesday’s session — 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, including key battlegrounds like Arizona and Michigan, 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.
For hours of debate Tuesday, McConnell led Republicans in advancing a raft of proposed changes to the broad legislation. He proposed, in one instance, striking provisions of the bill that required third-party nonprofit groups involved in the 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.”