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Democrats' sweeping election overhaul bill hits roadblock with tie vote in Senate panel

Party leaders can move the bill to the floor, but they face major hurdles, including a key Democratic holdout and little hope of defeating a GOP filibuster.
Image: Amy Klobuchar, Roy Blunt
Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the ranking member, before a committee markup of the For the People Act of 2021 at the Capitol on Tuesday.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Democrats hit roadblocks Tuesday as they sought to advance their massive voting and election overhaul bill to the full Senate after a long and contentious committee session.

The vote in the Rules Committee on whether to move the legislation forward concluded with a predictable 9-9 tie along party lines, trapping the bill in the committee until Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., makes a motion to send it to the full chamber.

"This is not the last you will hear. This is the beginning, as Sen. Schumer under his rights will be able to bring this bill to the floor," committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said after the vote.

But Democrats don't have the votes to pass it in the full Senate — and it's not clear that they have a strategy to get there.

For now, 49 of the 50 members of the Democratic caucus are sponsoring the bill. The holdout is Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who opposes the current version and has said he wants a bipartisan plan, instead.

But Republicans made it clear that they have no interest in compromising on core provisions of the bill, which would establish a federal floor for voting rights by requiring states to automatically register eligible voters and offer 15 days of early voting, among other provisions.

Led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, GOP senators blasted the legislation during the markup Tuesday as a federal takeover of elections by one party.

Even if Democrats unified their 50-member caucus and secured a majority, the bill is subject to a filibuster that would require 60 votes to overcome. And Manchin has insisted, repeatedly, that he won't vote to abolish the 60-vote rule.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican ranking member of the committee, told reporters Tuesday that the legislation "doesn't have any hope of passing."

"The majority leader will have to decide if he wants to bring a bill to the floor that can't possibly pass unless there's a change to the Senate rules," he said.

Democratic leaders said the legislation is crucial to protect American democracy from GOP-led restrictive voting laws in states like Arizona, Texas and Georgia, which some of them compared to Jim Crow measures.

"In democracy, when you lose an election, you try to persuade more voters to vote for you. You don't try to ban the other side from voting," Schumer said. "That's what dictators do."

The committee considered more than 30 amendments; only a handful were adopted. They included one by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to require the attorney general to submit a report to Congress studying voting by mail for military and overseas voters and one from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would eliminate the requirement that applicants for independent redistricting commissions disclose their affiliations with religious organizations.

Cruz also introduced amendments that failed, one of which would have expressed a sense of the Senate condemning businesses that are boycotting Georgia over its new restrictive voting law. Klobuchar condemned the amendment because it would have struck language in the underlying bill that said Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Sen. Jon Ossof, D-Ga., also opposed the amendment, saying that while he is against boycotts of his state, he didn't support the way Cruz's language characterized its voting law.

Klobuchar offered an amendment on behalf of Democrats to make a series of revisions to give states waivers and flexibility to implement major parts of it.

The amendment won the support of all Democrats, but the 9-9 tie meant it wasn't adopted. Aides said they could pursue the amendments on the Senate floor.

But first they would have to break a filibuster to begin debate.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the lead sponsor, said Democrats are "having conversations" about the need to protect Americans' constitutional right to vote. "If we can't persuade Republicans to join us, then 50 Democrats will get in a room and figure it out," he said.

Asked whether that means getting around the filibuster, Merkley, an outspoken opponent of the 60-vote rule, said only: "Fifty Democrats will have to get in a room and figure out how to go forward."

Toward the end of the session Tuesday, Blunt made it clear that his side wasn't interested in getting the bill to the finish line.

"Your enthusiasm is not shared by us," Blunt told Klobuchar.