West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III voted with his party Tuesday in favor of debating Democrats’ signature overhaul of elections, campaign finance and ethics laws, but the measure’s path to enactment still remains improbable.
Republicans, as expected, opposed a procedural vote that would have let the Senate begin debate and given Manchin a chance to change a sweeping bill he had said earlier this month he would vote against. Senators voted 50-50 along party lines, leaving the motion short of the needed 60 votes for adoption.
GOP senators called the bill a power grab by the other side of the aisle and argued it would give too much control to the federal government over elections. Democrats said they planned to press ahead, as allied outside interest groups mounted a fresh round of pressure campaigns, including to end the legislative filibuster.
“This is the beginning and not the end,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chairwoman of the Rules and Administration panel, which has jurisdiction over election and campaign issues.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said that anyone who views the debate over the bill, known as the For the People Act, as just another partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats is missing the larger point.
“This is a battle for the soul of America,” Schumer said.
Klobuchar, whose committee deadlocked on the bill during a May markup, said the next step is to discuss a proposal from Manchin, which includes many components of the original overhaul — but not all. One provision Manchin dropped, which the GOP has assailed as a way to force taxpayers to fund politicians, would create an optional public financing system for congressional campaigns. Democrats said they would have considered Manchin’s amendments first, had Tuesday’s motion been adopted.
The vote Tuesday was for cloture on a motion to begin debating S 2093, a bill containing Klobuchar’s revised version of the original bill, S1, which remains stuck in Klobuchar’s committee.
Vice President Kamala Harris presided over the vote, a signal of the importance the measure holds on the Democrats' agenda. Klobuchar and Manchin sat close beside one another at the West Virginia Democrat's designated desk, chairs scooted together and heads bowed in conversation for much of the beginning of the vote.
The Minnesota Democrat later migrated to the dais where she had an extended conversation with Harris as they waited for the vote to wrap up.
New holiday, voter ID
The Manchin proposal would set Election Day as a holiday, require at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections, prohibit partisan gerrymandering and would require voter ID laws, though with several ways to prove an individual’s identity. It would also make “motor voter” registration, where 16- and 17-year-olds can pre-register to vote when they get licensed to drive, a federal standard.
Klobuchar said she is still working with Manchin on differences regarding mail-in ballots and details of voter ID requirements.
“That's the agreement right now, but it's not one of these things where we are so far apart. We're not as far apart as you think,” Klobuchar said. “We simply have to work out the details and I'm not going to move backwards.”
The Democratic-led House has already passed its version of the bill, whose 800-plus pages of text would reshape how congressional candidates may fund their campaigns by instituting optional public financing that would match $6 in government money for every $1 raised in small donations. The bill also would set minimum standards for voting, such as same-day registration, mandatory periods for early voting and access to no-excuse mail-in balloting.
Nonpartisan panels would also be empowered to redraw congressional districts. And the bill would establish new rules and ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and federal officials, among other provisions. The bill also would remake the Federal Election Commission from an evenly split agency with three appointees by Democrats and three by Republicans into a five-member commission. Democrats say it would prevent partisan deadlock at the FEC, but Republicans argue it would give one party an advantage to go after political opponents.
Though Manchin has endorsed the idea of nonpartisan redistricting efforts, he has thrown cold water on public financing and other priorities of liberal groups and progressive lawmakers.
Manchin was a co-sponsor of the bill in the last Congress, when House Democrats passed it only to send it to its demise in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.
Campaigns ramping up
Outside advocates for the overhaul already had anticipated defeat of the motion, and planned to embark on multimillion-dollar TV and digital ads and grassroots demonstrations over the July Fourth congressional recess. Those efforts, some of which are also aimed at convincing Democratic senators to scrap the filibuster, are underway already.
Senators spent much of Tuesday giving floor speeches for and against the bill
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said certain provisions would stifle free speech, especially those that would require disclosure by political groups and causes that currently can keep their donors hidden. The Kentucky Republican said voters and activists should fear “naming and shaming,” for their support of policy campaigns and political efforts, should the bill become law.
“Today, Democrats are asking for a green light to supercharge the intimidation machine,” McConnell said Tuesday. Pushing back on charges from Democrats that the Senate has become an obstructionist body, he said the chamber “is only an obstacle when the policy is flawed and the process is rotten.”
Schumer chided McConnell and Republicans for denying a debate on the measure.
“Everyone knows you still need 60 votes to end the debate on a bill,” he said Tuesday on the floor. “So even if the Republicans don’t like the legislation at the end of the process, let them vote against it then. But no, they don’t even want to debate it.”
Liberal supporters of the overhaul, who see the bill as needed to counter efforts by Republican-controlled states to restrict voting, said the defeat of Tuesday’s motion did not leave their side without hope, given that Manchin joined with other Democrats.
“It is a big victory that he is voting with the rest of the Democratic caucus to try to start debate,” said Michael Sozan, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The legislation has been incorrectly declared dead many times.”
Democrats targeted for vote
Even if the measure meets the same fate in the Senate as it did in the last Congress, the debate isn’t likely over. It’s expected to be among the issues that candidates bring up on the 2022 campaign trail, with Democrats offering the provisions of the overhaul as a reason for voters to choose them, while Republicans do the opposite.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Tuesday called out five Democratic senators up for reelection — Arizona’s Mark Kelly, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto.
Those senators are “content to bite their tongues because they are ‘too scared’ to defy the far-Left, radical base,” said the campaign arm’s spokeswoman Katharine Cooksey in a statement. One Nation, a GOP outside group, launched a $1 million digital advocacy campaign against Kelly on Tuesday, criticizing him for not saying whether he would support rolling back the filibuster for legislation.