WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders released a bipartisan government funding bill early Tuesday that includes a rewrite of federal election laws aimed at preventing another Jan. 6-style attack and choking off avenues for future candidates to steal elections.
They expect to pass the bill in the coming days to avoid a government shutdown slated to begin this weekend. It is the product of lengthy negotiations between the two parties and has President Joe Biden's support.
The Senate voted 70 to 25 in the evening to advance the bill, a key test vote that indicates it has the necessary support to pass the chamber. Senate leaders are hoping to approve the bill as early as Wednesday, sending it to the House.
The bill's release came just hours after the House’s Jan. 6 committee held its final public meeting, issuing criminal referrals for former President Donald Trump and alleging he waged “a multi-part scheme to overturn the results and block the transfer of power” after losing the 2020 election. But unlike the panel's recommendations, the bill's provisions would have the force of law.
The massive $1.7 trillion spending package funds federal agencies through next fall. It includes $44.9 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine as the country fights to hold off Russia in the ongoing war. It also would provide $40.6 billion in disaster relief and would bar the use of TikTok on government devices for national security reasons.
It could be the last major bill that passes this year before Republicans seize control of the House on Jan. 3.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is courting the votes of anti-spending conservatives to become speaker next year, has sought to torpedo the package and punt the issue until Republicans take control. His leadership team is pressuring GOP lawmakers to vote against it, which will likely force Democrats to supply most of the votes to pass it in the House.
Capitol Hill leaders decided to attach the election bill and Ukraine aid to speed up the process, on the belief that the combined package has the votes to pass.
“I’m confident both sides can find things in it that they can enthusiastically support,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday, calling the spending bill “the last major item on our to-do list” this year before leaving for the holidays. “It’s not going to be everything anybody wanted,” he said.
But Schumer said that another stopgap bill would “leave the country high and dry,” and that a government shutdown would be worse.
The release of the bill was delayed by hours over a snag involving language about the location of the FBI's future headquarters, a matter of contention between Maryland and Virginia. Other items that Democrats were pushing for — such as immigration provisions, cannabis banking measures and a child tax credit expansion — were excluded from the deal.
Preventing future coup attempts
The election legislation attached to the funding bill would close loopholes in federal law that Trump and his allies sought to exploit on Jan. 6, 2021, to stay in power despite his election loss to Biden.
It would revise the 1887 Electoral Count Act to clarify that the vice president’s role is simply to count votes, and it would raise the threshold to force a vote to object to a state's electoral votes from one member of the House and Senate to one-fifth of each chamber. It would also beef up laws involving state certification of elections, in an attempt to avoid future competing slates of electors, and smooth the presidential transition process.
The election measure was announced in July by a bipartisan group led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. It has 38 sponsors in the Senate, including 16 Republicans. It is backed by McConnell, who said in September that the “chaos that came to a head on Jan. 6 of last year certainly underscored the need for an update” to the 1887 law. It passed committee with some revisions by a vote of 14-1 this fall, opposed only by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“The Electoral Count process was never meant to be a trigger point for an insurrection and that is why we are reforming it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the chair of the Rules Committee, said Tuesday.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said the election overhaul measure was “good” and represents “progress.” But he warned that protecting American democracy will require more than just a new law.
“We just need to understand that there is a movement of people, and they’re well-financed, and they will not be troubled by a new statute,” Schatz said. “So we just have to remain vigilant, even if we pass the Electoral Count Act because these people were already trying to figure out how to circumvent the Constitution and federal law. And so they’ll keep doing that.”
'A concern of mine'
For Democrats, the legislation concludes their era of trifecta government control with a detailed funding package and resolves the must-pass issue until late 2023, preventing a round of brinkmanship early in the new year with a GOP-run House.
Two key negotiators of the package — Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Vice Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala. — are retiring at the end of the year after serving for decades and were highly motivated to close the deal.
For Republicans, one incentive to pass the bill now is that it funds the military at a higher level than the nondefense budget. “This is a strong outcome for Republicans,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, arguing that the GOP persuaded Democrats to back down on their long-standing demand for “parity” between the two pots of money.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, called the imbalance between military and nonmilitary money “a concern of mine,” and said there are “others who feel the way I do.” But she said the bill may be preferable to dealing with a Republican-controlled House next year.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., blasted the bill, saying that “if we care about Americans, we’ve got to start acting responsibly.”
“This has got to stop,” he told reporters. “We’ve got to say we came up here to be fiscally responsible and watch your money.”
The White House championed the legislation Tuesday, calling it “an important step forward” that brings the parties together.
“It will advance cutting-edge research on cancer and other diseases, make our communities safer, deliver for our veterans, support the Ukrainian people, help communities recovering from devastating natural disasters, invest in child care and education, and more,” White House budget director Shalanda Young said in a statement. “As with any compromise, neither side got everything it wanted, but this legislation is good for our economy, our competitiveness, and our country, and I urge Congress to send it to the president’s desk without delay.”