McConnell in attack-dog mode on House Democrats first big bill

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It’s not fair to say the Senate is doing nothing under Mitch McConnell other than confirming judges.

The Republican Senate Majority Leader has devoted much of his time lately to fashioning talking points to attack the Democrats’ top piece of legislation in the House, a wide-ranging bill dealing with reforms to campaign finance, ethics and voting rights.

McConnell gave seven floor speeches in the Senate in the weeks leading up to the vote in the House on Thursday. And before House Democrats even brought their first major bill of the new Congress to the House floor for a final vote on Friday, McConnell strode to the Senate floor once again to denounce it, even though he has promised he won’t ever allow it for even a vote in the upper chamber.

“Anyone who's been observing the floor of the Senate would have noticed how vociferously our Republican leader opposes HR1,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said from the Senate floor Thursday morning, referring to the For the People Act.

Why all this energy for a bill that won’t be going anywhere in this Congress?

It appears that McConnell’s passion for the House bill is due to the fact that the Democrats’ bill campaign finance sections deal with a number of issues that have long animated him: the debate over dark money, government oversight and control of election ads and spending, and public financing of campaigns.

“This is an issue that I’ve dealt with for decades,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday. One former top aide to McConnell said he feels it is his duty to be the Republican Party’s attack dog on these issues.

“He hates campaign finance reform more than anything,” said one top House Democrat leadership aide.

But McConnell has also taken aim at the Democratic arguments about voting rights, laying out the case for a rebuttal of Democratic claims that voter suppression is a growing problem since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. The Shelby decision weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act by declaring outdated the guidelines that triggered Justice Department oversight of states and counties with histories of racial discrimination, largely against African-Americans.

In fact, McConnell has made one of the most robust arguments in American politics to date to push back against growing claims that Republicans in certain states have been intentionally suppressing the vote with increasing success since 2013. This case has been building for a few years, helped by things like a court decision in North Carolina that found the state legislature there crafted a voter ID law in 2013 — the same year Shelby was decided — that targeted African-American voters with “surgical precision.”

Then, in 2018, elections in Georgia and South Dakota offered new evidence for Democratic arguments that Republican state officials were using legal means to make it harder for minorities to vote, usually in the name of preventing voter fraud.

McConnell’s Feb. 7 floor speech was his most thorough argument against the Democratic narrative.

“If you only listened to Democrats, you might actually think that there is a widespread voting crisis in this country,” McConnell said. He argued that “2018 saw the highest midterm turnout rate in half a century” and that “2016 hit an all-time record for presidential ballots cast and the third-highest presidential turnout rate in 50 years.”

McConnell praised what he called “the freedom, openness, and availability of the electoral franchise across our country in the year 2019” and said that “the procedures [Democrats are] trying to attack actually could not be more reasonable.”

McConnell’s arguments against the voter suppression narrative are of interest in part because while HR1 does have some provisions related to the issue — creating automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, and mandating redistricting rules — it is in many ways a prelude to a bigger bill on the issue that will come later this year: HR4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

That bill will seek to address the issues dealt with in Shelby, particularly the issue of updating formulas for triggering federal oversight of elections.

Nonetheless, McConnell has grounded his argument against HR1’s voting rights provisions in the constitutional argument that Article 1, Section VI gives state governments “primary responsibility” for the conducting of elections.

He acknowledged that the federal government has needed to intervene in the past during the civil rights movement. And in fact elections are not automatically fairer and more open simply because they are supervised by state and local officials, as McConnell and other Republicans have argued during the current debate over HR1.

McConnell dismissed the notion that racial discrimination by legal means is occurring in modern times. “What is the alleged crisis now?” he asked.

This assertion is at the heart of the legislation, and current debates.

Stacey Abrams testifies about voting rights in Georgia, Feb. 19, 2019. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

Stacey Abrams, the former House Democratic leader in the Georgia legislature who lost a close election for governor in that state last year, has become a leading spokeswoman for the issue of voting rights. Last week, she told a field hearing held by the House Administration Committee in Atlanta that Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere have often managed to use seemingly incidental ineptitude as a front for intentional suppression of the vote.

“Incompetence and malfeasance operate in tandem, and the sheer complexity of the state’s voting apparatus smooths voter suppression into a nearly seamless system that targets voter registration, ballot access and ballot counting,” Abrams said.

Yet voter suppression is fraught with both racial and partisan divisions. And in such an environment, inaccurate claims only further muddy the waters, as happened last weekend, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made inaccurate claims about voter suppression in the 2016 presidential election. Her claims were then given “Four Pinocchios” by the Washington Post fact checker.

This week, McConnell has focused his ire on several parts of HR1, including the lack of any mention of ballot harvesting by Democrats. Ballot harvesting was the tactic used by a Republican operative in North Carolina last fall to commit election fraud in the Ninth Congressional district, which resulted in the results being disallowed and a new election set for Sept. 10.

McConnell said Wednesday that Democrats should have made it illegal for voters to entrust anyone to deliver an absentee ballot, and essentially alleged that Democrats in California had used the tactic in the same way that North Carolina Republicans did. (The practice is legal in California.)

“It is widely thought ballot harvesting is the reason there are only seven Republicans left in the delegation from California,” McConnell said Wednesday. He called “ballot harvesting” an “obvious example of voter fraud.”

But Thomas Umberg, a California state senator involved in the issue of “third party vote by mail returns,” called McConnell’s claims “ludicrous.”

“There is credible evidence that there was an organized effort to illegally mark ballots in North Carolina and at least one arrest has already been made in the case,” wrote Umberg, who is chair of the California state Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments.” No such evidence or credible accusations have occurred here in California — only sour grapes by people unhappy with the results of an election conducted with integrity.”

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