McConnell poised for starring role in voting bill fight

FILE - In this April 20, 2021, file photo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks after a GOP policy luncheon, on Capitol Hill in Washington. McConnell says Republicans are willing to spend up to $600 billion for roads, bridges and other projects. That's far less than what President Joe Biden is seeking, but is in line with a new $568 billion proposal put forward by other Senate Republicans. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is so determined to stop a sweeping elections overhaul pushed by congressional Democrats that he will personally argue against it, armed with a stack of amendments at a Senate hearing this week as Democrats advance the bill toward a vote.

It’s a rare role for a party leader but shows the extent to which Republicans are prepared to fight the Democratic priority. The legislation would be the largest overhaul of U.S. elections in a generation and touches on almost every aspect of the electoral process after the divisive 2020 election.

What’s typically an hourslong legislative slog could drag into a dayslong showdown starting Tuesday at the Senate Rules Committee, a surprising new venue in the nation’s broader debate over voting rules.

The action in Congress comes as states including Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas are pushing new voting rules to uphold election integrity. Democrats are on defense, having been unable to halt new state rules that will take months or years to litigate in court. Republicans argue the new state rules are needed to ensure mail ballots and other methods that became popular during the pandemic are trustworthy, but Democratic critics claim without evidence the states are seeking to reduce voter access, particularly for black voters.

McConnell is expected to be an “active” participant in Tuesday’s session to debate and amend the voting bill, his office said. Stopping the bill is his “priority,” as Republicans argue the legislation represents a Democratic power grab and federal overreach into state administration of elections.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is also expected to stop in at the Rules panel meeting to add his weight to the debate. President Joe Biden has said the federal legislation would “restore the soul of America” by giving everyone equal access to the vote.

The legislation, known as the For the People Act, was given top billing on the Democratic agenda, but the path ahead is unclear. Despite the showing from McConnell, who has cultivated a reputation for turning the Senate into a legislative graveyard, moderate members of the Democratic caucus also pose a sizable obstacle to the bill becoming law.

Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both said they oppose making changes to the Senate’s filibuster rules, which would be needed in order to maneuver the bill past Republican opposition and pass it with a simple majority in a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris delivering the tiebreaking 51st vote.

Manchin has called for any elections overhaul to be done on a bipartisan basis.

Other Democrats want to pare back the bill to core voting protections to try to put Republicans on the spot.

House resolution H.R. 1, and its companion, S. 1, in the Senate have been in the works for several years. As passed by the House in March, the legislation would mandate automatic voter registration nationwide, require states to offer 15 days of early voting, require more disclosure from political donors and restrict so-called partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, among other changes. It would also compel states to offer absentee voting.

One Republican aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly said they are planning to try to strike out full sections of the bill and introduce other changes.

Democrats have been making their own changes to the bill to draw support. Manchin has not yet signed on, and his backing will be crucial.

In the latest version of the legislation, states would have more time and flexibility to put new federal rules in place. Some election officials had complained of unrealistic timelines, increased costs and onerous requirements.

States would have more time to launch same-day voter registration at polling places and to comply with new voting system requirements. They would also be able to apply for an extension if they were unable to meet the deadline for automatic voter registration. Officials have said these are complex processes that require equipment changes or upgrades that will take time to get in place.

Democrats are also dropping a requirement that local election offices provide self-sealing envelopes with mail ballots and cover the costs of return postage. Instead, they plan to require the U.S. Postal Service to carry mail ballots and ballot request forms free of charge, with the federal government picking up the tab.

Manchin told reporters Monday that he hadn’t yet reviewed the changes but remained open to supporting the bill.

“We are looking at everything. We hope there’s a pathway there,” he said.