A key Senate committee deadlocked on Tuesday over Democrats’ sweeping proposed elections overhaul, setting the stage for a showdown on the Senate floor in the coming months that could determine the future of voting rights and campaign rules across the country.
The tie vote by the Senate Rules Committee, with nine Democrats in favor and nine Republicans opposed, does not prevent Democrats from moving forward with the 800-page legislation, known as the For the People Act. Proponents of the bill hailed it as an important step toward adopting far-reaching federal changes to blunt the restrictive new voting laws emerging in Republican-led battlegrounds like Georgia and Florida.
But the action unavoidably thrust a set of thorny questions into Democrats’s laps about how to proceed with an issue they view as a pressing civil rights fight with sweeping implications for democracy and their party. The bill as written faces near-impossible odds in the Senate, where Republicans are expected to block it using a filibuster and at least one Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, remains opposed.
With their control in Washington fleeting and Republicans states racing ahead with their own laws, Democrats must now decide how to reach consensus among themselves on the measure, and whether to attempt to destroy or significantly alter the filibuster to salvage its chances of becoming law.
“Here in the 21st century, we are witnessing an attempt at the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said at the session’s outset, calling the debate a “legacy defining choice.”
He cited a new law in Iowa restricting early and mail-in voting, another in Florida cutting back on the use of drop boxes and making it harder to vote by mail, and in Georgia, where Democrats have attacked the decision to bar third parties from giving water or snacks to voters waiting in long lines.
Among other changes, the Democrats’ bill would essentially overwrite some of these recent state laws by requiring each state implement 15 days of early voting, no-excuse vote by mail programs — like the ones many states expanded during the pandemic — and automatic and same-day voter registration. The legislation also would restore voting rights to former felons and neutralize restrictive state voter identification laws that Democrats say can make it harder for minorities to vote.
“These laws carry the stench of oppression, the smell of bigotry,” Mr. Schumer said to Republicans. “Are you going to stamp it out, or are you going to spread it?”
The attacks may help galvanize public support for Democrats’ cause, but over 8 hours of debate, the clash only served to highlight how vast philosophical differences over elections themselves have come to divide the two parties in the shadow of Donald J. Trump’s fallacious attack on the 2020 contest.
Republicans gave no indication they were willing to cede any ground to Democrats in a fight that now stretches from the Capitol in Washington to state houses across the country. Instead, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky argued Democrats were merely using state laws as a fig leaf to justify an unnecessary and self-serving federal power “cooked up at the Democratic National Committee.”
“Our democracy is not in crisis, and we’re not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it,” Mr. McConnell said.
He and other Republicans on the committee were careful to sidestep many of Mr. Trump’s outlandish claims of fraud, which have taken deep root in the party, prompting the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and giving ammunition to state lawmakers that have adjusted their election laws. But Mr. Trump, who still towers over the party, made it unavoidable, calling for every state to follow suit “so we never again have an election rigged and stolen from us.”
“The people are demanding real reform!” he said in a statement.