WASHINGTON – The massive election reform measure that Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is trying to shepherd through a crucial test in the Senate has all the makings of a moonshot: hard to achieve and fraught with complications.
For "anyone who is serious about trying to get something done to make it easier for people to vote ... we're ready to go," Minnesota's senior senator said in an interview.
Dubbed the For the People Act, the bill affects topics from voter registration to absentee ballots to campaign finance to ethics laws. Republicans charge that it's an unconstitutional attempt by the federal government to wrest control of elections from states.
The bill "would force a single partisan view of elections on more than 10,000 jurisdictions around the country," said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which is taking up the bill next week. "State and local election administrators would be forced to change how they register voters and which voting systems they can use, how they handle early voting and absentee ballots, and how they maintain their voter list."
Klobuchar, who chairs the Rules Committee, is talking to colleagues and proposing changes to the bill in advance of the crucial May 11 markup. She has invested a big piece of her political reputation in the legislation because she believes it is the most important voting rights law in half a century.
Still, former Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier warned, "There is a harsh and probably unbridgeable partisan divide on this that's not going to be overcome."
The bill aims to ensure access to mail-in voting that in 2020 helped spark the largest voter turnout in 120 years, despite the pandemic. Meanwhile, voting restrictions are now passing in many Republican-run state legislatures in reaction to former President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims that massive voter fraud cost him the 2020 presidential election.
Those competing approaches may be irreconcilable.
Klobuchar will likely be able to get the bill out of her committee next week on a party-line vote. She said she has not given up on getting the bill through the full Senate. While she "would love to get Republican support," she acknowledged that there were "not really indications of that now." Republicans, she said "have filed more than 300 bills that make it harder to vote just at a time when Americans showed their engagement in democracy."
The bill faces long odds in the equally divided Senate. What's less clear is which party and lawmakers get hurt most by the legislation's defeat. Control of Congress in the midterm elections is at stake, a decision that could determine the country's political course for years and perhaps decades.
On the same day House Democrats passed their version of the bill in March without a single Republican vote, and one Democratic defector, Minnesota's Tom Emmer, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, issued a statement saying that "223 Democrats are permanently on record for sponsoring a bill that would erode state control of their elections and provide government funding for partisan campaigns."
There's an urgency behind the bill, Sen. Tina Smith said in an interview. But the difficulties moving forward aren't lost on the Minnesota Democrat.
"We won't know what happens until this bill ultimately comes up for a vote, and I am sure that one way or another we're going to have an opportunity to vote on this bill, and people are going to be held accountable for how they vote," Smith said.
House Democrats from Minnesota were equally realistic about the bill's chances.
"Recent history would indicate that very little can pass through the Senate considering the Senate's rules," Rep. Dean Phillips said in an interview, adding "I'm hopeful, but I'm not confident."
Rep. Angie Craig admitted, "It's going to be tough in the Senate, I know. But this and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are the two most important bills this Congress will address."
In the Senate, Klobuchar, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon lead a charge that has yet to gain guaranteed support from Democrat Joe Manchin. The bill has no declared Republican support yet needs at least 10 Republicans to end a filibuster that could stop its passage.
The changes Klobuchar is now proposing to the bill do little to mend a fractured Congress, said Lara Brown, who directs George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.
Klobuchar's suggested changes "are about details," she said. "The problem is that Republicans are against the provisions."
Brown sees no way that this bill or the less expansive voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis will pass this year or next. Instead, she predicts the voting process will become the issue that determines the outcome of the 2022 midterms. Republicans will argue for restrictions based on what Brown called Trump's "lies" about election fraud. Democrats, she said, will argue against what they claim is voter suppression although no proof exists yet that new state initiatives will limit the number of votes cast.
Whatever the outcome, Schier thinks Klobuchar's handling of the For the People Act will enhance her reputation by helping start a debate that "will be actively considered in future years."
Klobuchar "should pass the bill [out of the Rules Committee] if she can, even with a partisan vote," Schier said. "Then, it's not her problem any more; it's Schumer's."