House set to move on elections overhaul as outside advocates focus on Senate

Conservative organizations mount counter-effort to protect the filibuster

Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell blocked Senate action as majority leader on a sweeping campaign finance and ethics overhaul package in the last congress, and as minority leader is working against it again this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell blocked Senate action as majority leader on a sweeping campaign finance and ethics overhaul package in the last congress, and as minority leader is working against it again this year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 25, 2021 at 11:24am, Updated at 5:46pm

With House Democrats poised to pass their 791-page campaign finance, elections and ethics overhaul as soon as next week, outside groups that support the measure are turning to the Senate.

Left-leaning organizations such as Indivisible, Public Citizen, Democracy 21 and Common Cause, among others, have ramped up lobbying, grassroots and advertising campaigns aimed at the Senate, which poses a potentially fatal threat to the package.

Even though Democrats narrowly control both chambers, the bill would need at least 60 votes to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. It’s a reality that has some advocates for the bill, which is dubbed HR 1 in the House and S 1 in the Senate, pushing to roll back the filibuster, at least in some fashion.

“We have a broken political system, a corrupting campaign finance system and a democracy that has been greatly damaged,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the political money overhaul group Democracy 21. “This legislation makes historic democracy reforms, and the choice is going to come down to: Are we going to repair our democracy or are we going to let an antiquated filibuster rule stand in the way of fixing our political system and our democracy?”

Wertheimer added that how Senate Democrats might figure out a way to pass the bill was above his “pay grade.”

On the other side, conservative organizations American Principles Project and the Susan B. Anthony List said Wednesday they were partnering in a new, at least $5 million Election Transparency Initiative led by Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official, to defeat HR 1 and to mount what the groups called a vigorous defense of the filibuster. 

The liberal group Indivisible says it’s budgeting upwards of $4 million on pressing for democracy overhaul measures, including support for HR 1 as well as statehood for the District of Columbia.

“We can’t fix our democracy until we get rid of the filibuster,” said the group’s Meagan Hatcher-Mays.  

Democrats in the House passed a nearly identical overhaul package in the last Congress, but the measure died in the Senate, then under the control of GOP Leader Mitch McConnell.   

McConnell is the minority leader now, and he has made opposition to the sweeping a package a priority yet again, saying Thursday that Democrats “want to use the temporary power the voters have granted them to try to ensure they’ll never have to relinquish it.”

“They want to mandate no-excuse mail-in balloting as a permanent norm, post-pandemic,” McConnell said. “And — I promise I am not making this up — their bill proposes to directly fund political campaigns with federal tax dollars. They want to raise money through new financial penalties which the government would then use to fund campaigns and consultants.”

Vetting the bill

The House Administration Committee held its first hearing on the bill this Congress on Thursday afternoon, and former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who founded the voting-rights organization Fair Fight Action, testified that “Congress must reject voter suppression and act boldly and quickly to safeguard, strengthen and preserve our democracy.”

Provisions in HR 1 “would create a uniform foundation for democracy in America that does not rely on geography,” she added.

The House Rules Committee has set a meeting for Monday to start the process leading to a floor vote later in the week. Republicans on the administration committee criticized Democrats for not fully vetting the bill in a markup.

Ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois said the measure, if enacted, would amount to the "largest expansion of the federal government’s role in elections that we have ever seen before."

The bill would create nationwide automatic voter registration and require paper ballots in all jurisdictions. It would set up a 6-to-1 optional public financing system to pay for congressional campaigns and tighten disclosure rules for political groups and super PACs that spend money to influence elections. It also would restructure the three-Democrat, three-Republican Federal Election Commission to a five-commissioner agency aimed at reducing party-line deadlocks.

It would also require early voting and expand voting by mail, two changes made hastily in some states to cope with the pandemic in 2020 that Trump and many of his GOP allies falsely charged led to fraud. Some House Republicans have responded with their own bill that would sharply curtail such practices in federal elections.

The Democrats' bill would put new limitations on some behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts, require more disclosure of online political ads and create nonpartisan redistricting efforts, among numerous other provisions. It also would establish an ethical code of conduct for Supreme Court justices and require presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

Though Republicans support some pieces of the package, the GOP and conservative organizations are taking aim particularly at the optional taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns, efforts to expand mail voting and other political money and lobbying measures.

David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, which opposes political money regulations, said new requirements of disclosing donors to issue advocacy groups could have a chilling effect on their efforts.

“We have a right as citizens to join groups and not report who we are to the government," he said, noting that early backers of the Civil Rights or LGBTQ movements often relied on their anonymity. “I think a number of liberal groups, when they sit down and look at this closely, they're going to be really concerned about the scope of this legislation.”

‘If there’s a will, there’s a way’

Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of the bill, said he doesn’t expect much, if any, GOP support.

Even with the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, Sarbanes said Democratic control of the chamber means it’ll get a hearing and, likely, a vote — both of which could put pressure on Republicans to support the bill, or on Democrats to roll back the filibuster rules.

“The Senate’s rules are the Senate’s rules,” he said. “My view is, with reform that’s this important, this critical for so many Americans, that if there’s a will, there’s a way.” He said he hopes House passage will apply momentum to its Senate companion.

Voting for change?

Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel of public policy and government affairs for Common Cause, said that even as state and local jurisdictions run elections, Congress has the authority to set standards, such as requiring all states to provide early voting or no-excuse voting by mail. He noted that the bill would authorize $1 billion for states to update their voting systems. 

“We have really been ratcheting up our engagement with our members,” he said. The group has broken up its advocates into action teams that are driving calls and texts to senators, he said.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University who focuses on political money,  said the overhaul could significantly reduce undisclosed funds in federal elections, while the public financing system could enable less wealthy candidates to run for Senate and House.

“It could be a real game changer for who would have the ability to run for Congress,” she said.

Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen said the effort also includes recent ads thanking members for signing on to the legislation, as well as public relations efforts, social media campaigns and op-eds in support. The attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 has put renewed focus on the overhaul, she said.

“We are connecting the dots between the democracy disaster we saw last month and the real need for reform,” Gilbert said. 

The anti-filibuster effort Fix Our Senate launched a six-figure ad campaign in January and has another one in the works, said the group’s Eli Zupnick, a former Senate Democratic aide.

The fight over HR 1, Zupnick said, is intimately connected to the filibuster fight: “The filibuster will be the brick wall that HR 1 slams into unless it’s broken down.”