Maine’s two senators split on Tuesday as Democrats’ sweeping attempt to rewrite U.S. election and voting law stalled in the Senate amid unified Republican opposition.
The bill, known as the For the People Act, would touch on virtually every aspect of how elections are conducted, striking down hurdles to voting that advocates view as the Civil Rights fight of the era, while curbing the influence of money in politics and limiting partisan influence over the drawing of congressional districts.
But many in the GOP say the measure represents a breathtaking federal infringement on states’ authority to conduct their own elections without fraud — and one meant to ultimately benefit Democrats.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against moving forward with the bill Tuesday while Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voted for it. It failed on a 50-50 vote after Republicans denied Democrats the 60 votes needed to begin debate. Vice President Kamala Harris, the first black woman to hold her office, presided as the bill failed.
The rejection forces Democrats to reckon with what comes next for their top legislative priority in a narrowly divided Senate. They’ve touted the measure as a powerful counterweight to scores of proposals advancing in GOP-controlled capitals making it more difficult to vote.
Whatever Democrats decide, they will likely be confronted with the same challenge they faced Tuesday when minority Republicans used the filibuster — the same tool that Democrats employed during Donald Trump’s presidency — to block consideration of the bill.
Republicans showed no sign of yielding. In a floor speech, Collins argued the bill was introduced to “to enhance partisan messaging” and would “take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens.”
Pressure has been mounting on Democrats to change Senate rules or watch their priorities languish. A group of moderate Democratic senators, however, including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have ruled that out, denying the votes needed to make a filibuster change.
Biden has vowed what the White House calls the “fight of his presidency” over ensuring Americans’ access to voting. But without changes to Senate rules, key planks of his agenda, including the voting bill, appear stalled. King called the vote a “blow to our democratic system” in a Tuesday statement.
“The goal here was to establish a floor that ensures every American can exercise their right to vote, while still providing states the flexibility to adjust rules in ways that better serve their citizens. Unfortunately, every one of my GOP colleagues voted to block any discussion of the issue,” King said.
The changes being enacted in many Republican states are decried by voting rights advocates who argue the restrictions will make it more difficult for people to cast ballots, particularly minority residents who tend to support Democrats. Republicans, cheered on by Trump, talk instead about fighting potential fraud and say the Democrats’ concerns are overblown.
As the Senate discussion churns, more changes could be coming to the bill. Democrats want to protect against intimidation at the polls in the aftermath of the 2020 election. They propose enhancing penalties for those who would threaten or intimidate election workers and creating a “buffer zone” between election workers and poll watchers, among other possible changes.
They also want to limit the ability of state officials to remove local election officials. Georgia Republicans passed a law earlier this year that gives the GOP-dominated Legislature greater influence over a state board that regulates elections and empowers it to remove local election officials deemed to be underperforming.
But Democrats have divisions of their own. Until Tuesday, it wasn’t even clear that they would be united on the vote to bring the bill up for debate. Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia, announced earlier this month that he couldn’t support the bill because it lacked Republican support.
Manchin flipped his vote to a “yes” after Democrats agreed to consider his revised version. He has proposed adding provisions for a national voter ID requirement, which is anathema to many Democrats, and dropping a proposed public financing of campaigns.
Those changes did little, however, to garner the bipartisan support Manchin was hoping for. Senate Republicans said they would likely reject any legislation that expands the federal government’s role in elections. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dismissed Manchin’s version as “equally unacceptable.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a moderate, said some aspects of the Democratic bill were laudable and she supports other voting rights legislation, like a reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. Ultimately, she said the “sprawling” bill amounted to “a one-size-fits-all mandate coming out of Washington, D.C.”
Months in the making, Tuesday’s showdown over the For the People Act, as it is called, is hardly the end of the road. The struggle is taking on fresh urgency as Trump continues to dispute the outcome of the 2020 election and new limits move ahead in Republican-led states.
Story by Brian Slodysko, Christina A. Cassidy and Lisa Mascaro. BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.