The exterior of the U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022.
Sarah Silbiger | Reuters
Congressional leaders released a bipartisan government funding bill early Tuesday that includes a rewrite of federal election laws aimed at preventing another Jan. 6-style attack and choking off avenues for future candidates to steal elections.
They expect to pass the bill, which is a product of lengthy negotiations between the two parties, in the coming days to avoid a government shutdown slated to begin this weekend.
The legislation comes just a day after the House’s Jan. 6 committee held its final public meeting, issuing criminal referrals for former President Donald Trump and alleging he waged “a multi-part scheme to overturn the results and block the transfer of power” after losing the 2020 election. But unlike the panel’s recommendations, the bill’s provisions would have the force of law.
The massive $1.7 trillion spending package funds federal agencies through next fall. It includes additional U.S. aid to Ukraine as the country fights to hold off Russia in the ongoing war.
The Senate is expected to vote first and send the legislation to the House. It could be the last major bill that passes this year before Republicans seize control of the House on Jan. 3.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is courting the votes of anti-spending conservatives to become speaker next year, has sought to torpedo the package and punt the issue until Republicans take control. He has pressured GOP lawmakers to vote against it, forcing Democrats to supply most of the votes to pass it in the House. The bill has more bipartisan support in the Senate, where it is expected to get the 60 votes it needs to break a filibuster.
Capitol Hill leaders decided to attach the election bill and Ukraine aid to ease the process of passage, on the belief that the combined package has the votes to pass.
“I’m confident both sides can find things in it that they can enthusiastically support,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday, calling the spending bill “the last major item on our to-do list” this year before leaving for the holidays. “It’s not going to be everything anybody wanted,” he said.
But Schumer said that another stopgap bill would “leave the country high and dry,” and that a government shutdown would be worse.
The release of the bill was delayed by hours over a snag involving language about the location of the FBI’s future headquarters, a matter of contention between Maryland and Virginia. Other items that Democrats were pushing for — such as immigration provisions, cannabis banking measures and a child tax credit expansion — were excluded from the deal.
The election legislation attached to the funding bill would close loopholes in federal law that Trump and his allies sought to exploit on Jan. 6, 2021, to stay in power despite his election loss to President Joe Biden.
It would revise the 1887 Electoral Count Act to clarify that the vice president’s role is simply to count votes, and it would raise the threshold to force a vote to object to a state’s electoral votes from one member of the House and Senate to one-fifth of each chamber. It would also beef up laws involving state certification of elections, in an attempt to avoid future competing slates of electors, and smooth the presidential transition process.
The election measure was announced in July by a bipartisan group led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. It has 38 sponsors in the Senate, including 16 Republicans. It is backed by McConnell, who said in September that the “chaos that came to a head on Jan. 6 of last year certainly underscored the need for an update” to the 1887 law. It passed committee with some revisions by a vote of 14-1 this fall, opposed only by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“It’s good. It’s progress,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said of the election overhaul measure, before warning that protecting American democracy will require more than just a new law.
“We just need to understand that there is a movement of people, and they’re well-financed, and they will not be troubled by a new statute,” Schatz said. “So we just have to remain vigilant, even if we pass the Electoral Count Act because these people were already trying to figure out how to circumvent the Constitution and federal law. And so they’ll keep doing that.”
For Democrats, the legislation concludes their era of trifecta government control with a detailed funding package and resolves the must-pass issue until late 2023, preventing a round of brinkmanship early in the new year with a GOP-run House.
Two key negotiators of the package — Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Vice Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala. — are retiring at the end of the year after serving for decades and were highly motivated to close the deal.
For Republicans, one incentive to pass the bill now is that it funds the military at a higher level than the nondefense budget. “This is a strong outcome for Republicans,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, arguing that the GOP persuaded Democrats to back down on their long-standing demand for “parity” between the two pots of money.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, called the imbalance between military and nonmilitary money “a concern of mine,” and said there are “others who feel the way I do.” But she said the bill may be preferable to dealing with a Republican-controlled House next year.