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'Do or die': Democrats plan revisions to sweeping voting rights bill in Senate committee

The Democrats' revisions to the contentious election overhaul bill include extending deadlines, easing some rules and adding flexibility for states to implement it.
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WASHINGTON — The Senate is headed for a showdown over Democrats' sweeping voting rights and election overhaul bill as a key committee plans to mark up the legislation Tuesday.

The bill, the For The People Act, goes before the Democratic-controlled Rules Committee when Congress returns from recess. Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and the lead sponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., plan a "manager's amendment" with a series of changes to the bill from the House-passed version.

The Democrats' revisions would mostly extend deadlines, ease some rules and add flexibility for states to implement parts of the bill. Democrats don't expect Republican support for the final version, but they won't need it to send the bill out of committee to the full Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised floor consideration of the bill, known on Capitol Hill as S.1, after it goes through committee.

Democrats as well as Republicans are expected to offer other amendments, and aides are bracing for what could be days of markup. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has made it a priority to kill the bill, is expected to participate in the committee, an aide said.

GOP-led states like Texas, Florida and Georgia have advanced voting restrictions that President Joe Biden and other Democrats have compared to Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised nonwhite Americans. The bill seeks to impose a national standard for voting rights, which Republicans decry as a partisan power grab to supersede state autonomy.

Under Democrats' changes, automatic voter registration rules to add millions of Americans to the rolls would include waivers for extra time. Same-day registration mandates would be eased for a few years to account for problems in rural areas. And a 15-day rule for early voting would be scaled back in jurisdictions of 3,000 or fewer registered voters and others that automatically send mail ballots.

Klobuchar's office, which gave NBC News a summary of the manager's amendment, said the modifications are based on feedback from local election officials. Election experts are concerned about whether many states would be able to realistically implement the bill by the tight deadlines in the current version.

Separately, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., plans to offer an amendment to ban states from restricting volunteers from giving food or water to Americans waiting in line to vote, as long as it's offered to all voters and that the individuals aren't engaging in political activity, his office said. His plan, the Voters' Access To Water Act, comes after Georgia made that practice illegal.

Democrats may have a majority in the Senate, but Republicans have the upper hand on the bill. Forty-nine of the 50 Democratic members are cosponsoring it; Joe Manchin of West Virginia is the lone holdout. Even if Manchin comes aboard, they would have to find a way around the 60-vote filibuster rule, which he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., say they won't vote to abolish.

"We'll see how the bipartisan talks go that some Democrats are working on," said a senior Democratic aide. "Regardless, there's several options Dems have to get the legislation to the floor and they'll continue to discuss the best path forward to get it done."

'Can't make any predictions'

Manchin said April 30 on WV MetroNews' "Talkline," a statewide radio show, that he would "vote no" on the bill "as it exists today." But he added that voting should be "accessible" and "secured," and that Congress should "put guardrails" if states are subverting that.

On Monday, Manchin told NBC News he hadn't seen the changes proposed by Klobuchar. When asked if giving states flexibility would be a step in the right direction to winning his vote, he said he's open to hearing more and is "looking at everything."

"I hope there's a pathway forward. I hope there is," Manchin said.

Democrats anxiously hope so, too.

"Manchin is one of the voices who has asked for us to take into consideration feedback from state-level election officials, which is obviously something we are doing in this markup," said a Senate Democratic aide who was given anonymity to speak candidly. "I can't make any predictions. I'm sadly not a Joe Manchin mind reader, so I can't tell you for sure how the chips will fall when we bring it to the floor. But I think the pathway is there for him to get to yes."

A Pew Research Center poll last month found that some parts of the Democratic bill are popular, including provisions to automatically register eligible citizens to vote, guarantee two weeks of early voting and make Election Day a national holiday. It found that most Americans support some Republican-backed ideas, too, including requiring voters to show government-issued identification to vote.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said that the bill represents "a major change" from the traditional state-run election structure and that it "and comes closer than we've ever come to federalizing our election."

McConnell has said the legislation would lead to "a stunning one-party takeover of voting laws and elections in our country."

If the bill passes the Senate, the new version would have to be passed by the House before it could go to Biden's desk. The revisions are backed by John Sarbanes, D-Md., the lead House sponsor, who said in a statement: "I look forward to next week's Senate Rules Committee markup and hope that Senate Republicans approve Chairwoman Klobuchar's Manager's Amendment."

Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant and former aide to the party's House election arm, said "the future of the country is at stake" with the H.R. 1 and S.1 bills.

"This is do or die," he said. "We as a party need to put everything we can into this, because if we don't, over time our representative democracy is going to be much less representative. It's going to be much more conservative, much whiter and much more rural. And that's going to create a constitutional crisis."