McConnell vs. Schumer: Election law a rare moment in Senate

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stands as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell remains seated at President Joe Biden's address to Congress on April 28. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo, Pool

WASHINGTON D.C. (POLITICO) – The typically staid Senate Rules Committee hosted a rare dramatic showdown on Tuesday: the majority leader versus the minority leader, sparring over Democrats’ expansive election and ethics bill.

In dueling remarks, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell each accused the other’s party of trying to weaponize voting laws to expand its political power. They often clash indirectly on the floor, but the Schumer-and-McConnell show on Tuesday served as a preview of a forthcoming floor fight as Democrats push forward on the elections bill they’ve given the symbolically meaningful number of S. 1.

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Schumer used his testimony to raise the stakes of a battle against Republican state laws that he said “carry the stench of oppression” by limiting voting availability. He implored the GOP: “Are you going to stamp it out or are you going to allow it to be spread? I plead with my Republicans, think twice. I plead with Leader McConnell: think twice.”

McConnell retorted that Democrats wrote their elections bill in response to the results of the 2016 election and that their “supposed rationales [for it] have changed constantly.”

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

Tuesday’s markup lasted hours as Republicans sought to offer more than 100 amendments. While Schumer has vowed to take the bill to the Senate floor, its ultimate fate remains uncertain at best. The Senate Rules Committee tied on whether to advance it out of committee, which means Schumer will need to discharge it.

“It should be the view that everyone has that unless you’re prepared to change the rules of the Senate, this federal takeover of the elections doesn’t have any hope of passing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee.

Manchin remains the only Senate Democrat to not publicly sign on as a co-sponsor of the bill. But even if he does eventually get on board, the elections measure is still short of the 10 GOP votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. Privately, Senate Democrats and senior aides have agonized over the bill, with no clear path for it to become law.

Senate Democrats are set to hold another caucus meeting on the elections package on Thursday. Manchin, as well as some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, has urged the party to shift its focus to a voting-rights-only bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that has a slightly higher chance of winning GOP support.

If enacted into law, the legislation would amount to a sweeping overhaul of federal elections across the country. It would mandate in-person early voting in all states, require that states offer no-excuse absentee voting and institute automatic and same-day voter registration across the country, among other provisions. In addition, it would require most states to create independent redistricting commissions for future cycles.

Some election administrators who support the ethos of the bill have also quietly grumbled about its sweeping mandates, arguing that some are impossible to overcome. A manager’s amendment put forward by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chair of the Rules Committee, was introduced to mollify some of those concerns, pushing back some deadlines and broadly granting more leeway to smaller counties. But that amendment failed in a tied vote.

The elections proposal was given the first designation in both chambers — S.1 in the Senate, and H.R. 1 in the House. It passed the House on a near-party line vote in March, after going through the lower chamber in the 116th Congress and dying in the Senate without a vote. President Joe Biden has repeatedly spoken in favor of the bill, calling for Congress to send it to his desk during his first joint address. Republicans, however, have vociferously opposed the bill, and argue it amounts to a “federal takeover” of the U.S. election system.

The bill would also alter the Federal Election Commission, the nation’s chief campaign finance watchdog that is routinely criticized by good government groups as functionally toothless. Among its provisions is the addition of a public financing option that remains controversial among some Democrats on the Hill.

McConnell, in an unusual move, stayed for most of the hearing and offered three amendments. The first amendment would undo the bill’s FEC provisions and cap the tenure for commissioners at 12 years; the second would change its disclosure requirements; and the third would redirect the legislation’s public funding to the opioid epidemic. All three amendments failed in tied votes.

While the vast majority of amendments failed, less than a dozen made it through. Among the amendments the committee approved was a proposal from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) that would strike a provision in the bill that required members of the military overseas return paper ballots by mail. Another amendment from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) would require a report from the Attorney General on the effect of widespread mail-in voting on service members.