Democrats unveil compromise ethics and elections reform bill

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Senate Democrats unveiled Tuesday their intra-party compromise bill on elections and ethics reform, even as the legislation faces almost certain defeat without changes to Senate rules.

The latest legislation, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), would establish some federally mandated voting rules, such as requiring early voting options and expanding access to mail ballots, but is more scaled back than an original version that would have broadly remade the election process. The new bill could come to the Senate floor as early as next week.

Klobuchar in a statement Tuesday said that the legislation will “set basic national standards to make sure all Americans can cast their ballots in the way that works best for them, regardless of what zip code they live in.”

The latest package is meant to serve as a substitute for a sweeping piece of legislation that included a slew of ethics and campaign finance provisions that would have completely remade how candidates and officeholders can raise and spend money, along with the much-discussed election provisions. The House and Senate designated the original bill H.R. 1 and S. 1, respectively, to mark its importance to Democratic leadership.

The new version of the ethics and elections reform bill includes standards for states that require voter identification. But that provision isn't as strict as Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) original proposal, which called for a nationwide ID requirement. Instead, the new proposed legislation lays out guideposts for states to follow if they were to institute voter ID.

In addition, lawmakers added a provision that’s intended to protect the certification of election results and independence of local officials. The legislation would also establish grants for states that would go toward election administration and would allow for states to opt in to public financing for House races, a scaled down version of the nationwide program originally in H.R. 1.

The compromise bill keeps a provision from the original version that would require a much larger swath of politically active groups to disclose their donors and adds more transparency requirements for online advertising, which have generally trailed TV ads.

The new bill also scraps a plan from H.R. 1 that would have required states to establish independent commissions for congressional redistricting. It would, however, ban partisan gerrymandering.

Democrats argue the legislation is necessary to combat laws in Republican-led states like Texas and Georgia that have added voting restrictions.

While all 50 Senate Democrats are on board, the legislation has no backing from Senate Republicans, making final passage impossible without changes to the upper chamber's rules. Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block H.R. 1, which previously passed the House in March, and argued the legislation amounts to a federal takeover of elections. Manchin, a key centrist, meanwhile, had previously called the legislation too broad.

The latest election and ethics reform bill is the result of months of negotiation between Klobuchar, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as Democratic caucus members Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Angus King of Maine, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California and Jon Tester of Montana.

But without the support of 10 Senate Republicans, Klobuchar’s legislation will almost certainly face the same fate as the original package: a filibuster. Civil rights leaders have long warned that Senate Democrats must make a choice between protecting voting rights and the filibuster, and they have urged the caucus to at least carve out an exception to the rules for voting rights legislation.

But Democratic senators like Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have repeatedly said they have no interest in scrapping the filibuster, even if it's just for voting rights legislation. Some advocates for H.R. 1 have privately hoped that the impending filibuster of the election and ethics reform package will highlight Republicans stonewalling the legislation and get Manchin and others to reconsider their stance on Senate rules.

Schumer has not tipped his hand on rules changes. But the New York Democrat has vowed that “failure is not an option.”

"Let me be clear, Republicans refusing to support anything on voting rights is not an excuse for Democrats to do nothing," Schumer said Tuesday. "The Senate must act."

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