ATLANTA — Congressional Democrats are exploring ways to include financial incentives for states to expand voting access as part of a massive infrastructure bill, a key senator said Sunday.
Democrats have been struggling to get their marquee election reform bill passed in an evenly split Senate, where Republicans remain unified in their opposition and rules require 60 votes to advance most pieces of legislation.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said in an interview that the priority continues to be passing the legislation known as the For the People Act, which would usher in minimum voting standards in the U.S. such as automatic and same-day voter registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.
But Klobuchar noted that Democrats could also use the process known as reconciliation to advance financial incentives for states to adopt certain reforms. Election systems have been designated critical infrastructure on par with the nation’s power plants, banks and dams.
“You can do election infrastructure in there because that is part of infrastructure,” Klobuchar said. “It’s no substitute for the For the People Act, but it is something we can start working on immediately and are working on right now.”
Pushing election-related measures into the infrastructure bill would be a high-stakes gambit with no guarantee of success.
Under the congressional budget process, certain measures regarding revenues, spending and the debt can be approved with a 51-vote threshold, which is why Democrats are pursuing it. The process allows them to bypass a near-certain filibuster from Republicans.
But there’s a catch: The Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian can rule for the removal of any provision not directly related to the budget, or items whose budget impact is “merely incidental” to their intended policy changes.
In the end, Democrats would not achieve their goal of federal standards through the infrastructure bill alone but could incentivize some states to move in that direction.
“Money with incentives has passed before. So let’s see what we can get approved,” Klobuchar said. “But again, that is only part of it. Look, it’s not the whole thing, right? But it’s a tool you don’t want to let go.”
President Joe Biden’s big infrastructure proposals are moving through Congress on various tracks — each potentially complementing or torpedoing the other. A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a nearly $1 trillion package of traditional infrastructure for roads, bridges, broadband and some climate change investments. The rest of Biden’s ideas are being collected into the much broader multitrillion-dollar package that Democrats could approve on their own.
Republicans are unified against the larger infrastructure package and the election bill. The say the latter represents a Democratic power grab that amounts to a federal takeover of elections, which are administered at the state and local levels.
Republicans last month blocked an effort to debate the bill, and Democrats will have to decide whether they want to change Senate rules to ultimately pass the bill. At least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they oppose eliminating the filibuster rule.
Klobuchar was in Georgia ahead of a rare field hearing of the Senate Rules Committee, which will be held Monday at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The hearing is part of a sustained push by Klobuchar and fellow Democrats to pass their election bill. They say federal voting standards are needed to counter a raft of new laws pushed by GOP lawmakers in several states, including Georgia, to tighten voting rules.
Her visit also included a Sunday event with voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams. The two were scheduled to meet at a polling place in suburban Atlanta, where voters waited in long lines during early voting last year.
Georgia Republicans have pushed back against claims that their bill, known as SB 202, suppresses voters, noting that the state offers many of the measures Democrats are seeking in the federal bill, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic registration.
A campaign spokesperson for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection next year, called Sunday’s event and Monday’s hearing “nothing more than political theatre.”
“After failing spectacularly to pass an unconstitutional federal takeover of elections in Washington, Democrats are now using one P.R. stunt after another to rally support for their far-left and grossly unpopular agenda,” said Kemp spokesperson Tate Mitchell. “SB 202 led the country on enacting common-sense election reforms, and any honest look at the bill reveals that.”
While some of the more controversial aspects of the Georgia bill were scrapped during the legislative process, what passed is notable in its scope and for newly expansive powers granted to the state over local election offices.
The bill also adds a voter ID requirement for mail ballots, shortens the time period for requesting a mailed ballot, results in fewer ballot drop boxes available in metro Atlanta and bans the distribution of food and water by various groups and organizations to voters standing in line to cast a ballot. Several lawsuits have been filed over the law, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice.