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Bipartisan Senate group hits the gas on modest election overhaul bill

The lawmakers, who plan to meet by Zoom next week, are discussing changes to the Electoral Count Act and ways to protect election officials from threats.
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WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate group plans to hit the gas on a modest package of election overhauls, seeing a clear path to negotiate in the coming days after Democrats' two major voting rights bills went down in defeat.

The group plans to meet virtually during next week's recess to find a path forward on issues from clarifying the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to protecting election officials from threats and intimidation, according to senators involved.

Initial conversations have included Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine., has also engaged with the group, along with more than a dozen senators.

The group first met Jan. 5, a source familiar with the meeting said. Participants exchanged notes on issues they believed were worth tackling in a potential package. Staffers of interested members met Thursday to discuss the scope of the package and determine whether there's enough overlap in ideas, a source familiar with the meeting said. Members plan to talk again on Monday.

"We'll be on Zooms all next week," Manchin told reporters before the Senate adjourned Thursday.

Romney said members are interested in the counting of the Electoral College votes at the federal level as well as the counting of individual votes at the state level.

"Some items relate to making sure that election officials are not harassed. Others relate to how elections are certified. Others relate to what the role of the vice president is in the electoral counting process and how you would deal with an objection to a slate of electors," he said. "There are long lists from each of us, and we are just now beginning to talk about which of these we'll find sufficient support to include in a bill."

President Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday that whether or not the Democrats' larger voting bill passes, "I predict to you they’ll get something done on the electoral reform side of this."

Collins said that was a boost to the bipartisan group's efforts. "I was encouraged by the president's comment where he said he thought we could get something done on electoral reform," she said.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated his support for the effort Thursday.

"I wish them well, and I'd be happy to take a look at what they can come up with," he told reporters.

A heavy lift

Still, there are pitfalls. Progressive Democrats are less than enthusiastic about the effort, seeing it as insufficient to stop restrictive voting laws and protect democracy from existential threats. And it's unclear how much Republican support there will be, particularly if former President Donald Trump sees it as an implicit criticism of him and lashes out at the group.

Sources cautioned that the effort will be a heavy lift and that the next few days may determine whether it’s possible.

The group is grappling with how to protect election workers from harassment, which has become more common after the 2020 election, when Trump falsely claimed the election was stolen and blamed a litany of people in key states, including local election workers.

"Certainly nobody wants election officials to be harassed or threatened," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "How you do that — how you draw those lines — is a little trickier."

For instance, Blunt floated a scenario in which people at Election Day polling places are certain they're registered to vote and get upset with officials when they learn they're not on the rolls. "Have they violated a federal law?" he asked. "There's a lot of practical implications to that."

Blunt, the ranking member of the Rules Committee, said he's on the "periphery" of the group but added that there's lots of Republican interest in a package along the lines it is discussing, positing that "closer to 50 than 10" GOP senators would be open to it.

Meanwhile, Democrats don't want to appear quick to abandon their larger voting rights efforts after the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act fell to a GOP filibuster Wednesday evening.

On Jan. 4, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it "makes no sense" to ditch the voting bills for a change to the Electoral Count Act, saying the more modest changes wouldn't take away Republicans' ability to "rig the game."

For many Democrats, the question is whether the failure of the larger bills clear the way for a smaller one.

"I'm not in a position yet to comment on any specific proposed next steps," said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga. "The caucus is regrouping, the Senate is regrouping, and I'm open to engaging in discussions."