Partisan passions erupted on Wednesday at the Senate's first-ever hearing on HR 1, which has rapidly transformed from the democracy reform movement's longshot wish list into one of the topflight fights in Congress.
The session magnified the virtually total disagreement between the bill's Democratic proponents and Republican opponents. Not a glimmer of potential compromise surfaced, even about the need to do anything to fix the system.
"We have an existential threat to democracy on our hands," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared. Minutes later, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell derided the measure as "a solution in search of a problem" because "states are not engaging in efforts to suppress voters, whatsoever."
After more than four hours of testimony and tart exchanges among senators, it was clearer than ever that enacting the package will require limiting or eliminating the filibuster and its effective 60-vote requirement for passage. That is not close to happening, but more and more Democrats say this bill would by the most appropriate venue for changing the Senate rules sometime this year — on the grounds that protecting minorities' civil rights across the nation is a cause much more important than protecting the rights of a minority on Capitol Hill to shape policy.
The bill has generated a surge of attention mainly because it would create an expansive array of nationwide, liberalized ballot access rules, from required no-excuse absentee balloting to limits on voter ID requirements. Doing so would repel the potential wave of state efforts to make voting harder in the aftermath of a 2020 election that saw record turnout despite the pandemic.
But the measure, which the Democratic House passed over united GOP opposition three weeks ago, would also tamp down big money's secretive sway over campaigns, prevent partisan congressional gerrymandering and tighten government ethics rules — aspirations of good-government groups that in many cases predated their newly heightened concerns about election laws.
The divide over the election language is so stark that the two parties refer to it by different shorthand. Democrats almost always describe the provisions as assuring voting rights. Republicans almost always describe the same provisions as weakening election security.
The Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over all legislation connected to elections and internal Senate operations and so counts both party leaders as members, conducted the hearing. Schumer and McConnell each asserted that a partisan power grab was motivating the HR 1 position of the party across the dais.
"Shame, shame, shame on them," Schumer said, his comments focused on the GOP's opposition to federalization of election rules.
"There's plenty you ought to be ashamed about," McConnell replied, emphasizing proposals to boost the regulation of campaign finance.
They departed after their dueling speeches, yielding to an unusual level of sniping between the two senators with the senior seats on the panel. Democratic Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and top Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri have a rare reputation for collaboration in the gridlocked Senate, but the flashpoint created by the 800-page bill is clearly testing their relationship.
At one point, they sparred for about five minutes about the allocation of a few seconds of time for witnesses to finish their answers.
One of the witnesses called by the Republicans was GOP Secretary of State Mac Warner of West Virginia, whose vocal opposition to the bill — it would "overrule the balance of powers" and "stomp on states rights," he said — is seen as crucial to swaying his state's senior senator, Joe Manchin. He is the only Democrat who has not sponsored S 1, the nearly identical companion to HR 1, and is also the most prominent opponent to weakening the filibuster.
The possibility of a middle ground on the legislation seems remote. The parties fundamentally disagree about whether the states should continue to have dominant control over how elections are run (the GOP view) or whether the need to shore up voting rights can be met only by the federalized standards the Democrats have proposed.
Beyond that, there are several emerging strategic disagreements within the world of democracy reform advocates.
Some say the best option may be to shrink the bill to only the nine or so second-tier provisions that have drawn GOP support, such as mandating the disclosure of who pays for political advertising online.
Others acknowledge the standoff on the election provisions and argue those should be handled separately from the rest of the bill — calling for independent commissions to draw House seats, making super PACs disclose big donors, starting a public financing system for House candidates who rely on small-dollar gifts, enhancing the Federal Election Commission's regulatory strength, and setting new codes of conduct for the Supreme Court and Congress.
Still others, including the prominent election law professors Edward Foley of Ohio State and Rick Hasen of the University California at Irvine, are advocating for the opposite — a bill narrowed to provisions that would prevent a retrenchment of voting rights and shore up confidence in the fairness and security of elections in the face of former president Donald Trump's baseless claims about fraud.
But for now the majority of advocacy groups agree with two of the most venerable voices in the democracy reform world, Lawrence Lessig of Harvard and Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21. They argue that the heightened attention to voter suppression and the new Democratic control of Washington have created a rare opening for pushing the entire package, that proponents should "stop arguing with themselves" and that aspiring to nothing short of total victory is both bad politics and bad policy.
The proponents point to an array of polling showing the public is behind most of HR 1's ideas. But on Tuesday a conservative group, The Honest Elections Project, released results of a survey it commissioned showings something of the opposite: broad support for such things as having to show a photo ID to vote, which the bill would disallow, and solid opposition to third parties collecting and delivering sealed ballot envelopes, which the bill would permit.
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