The Senate took its first steps on Wednesday to advance one of Democrats’ top legislative priorities, convening the chamber’s opening hearing on a sweeping federal elections overhaul to expand voting rights and blunt Republican efforts to restrict access to the ballot box with a wave of new measures racing through state legislatures.
Chock-full of liberal priorities, the bill, called the For the People Act, would usher in landmark changes to make it easier to vote, enact new campaign finance laws and end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. The legislation passed the House along party lines earlier this month. It faces solid opposition from Republicans who are working to clamp down on ballot access, and who argue that the bill is a power-grab by Democrats.
Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee hoped that testimony from Eric Holder, the former attorney general; prominent voting experts; and anti-corruption advocates will help build on a rising drumbeat of support by liberals for its enactment.
“Today, in the 21st Century, there is a concerted, nationwide effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote and to truly have a voice in their own government,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader.
He called the voting rollbacks in the states an “existential threat to our democracy” reminiscent of the Jim Crow segregationist laws of the past, chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Republicans who are promoting them.
Republicans were equally adamant in their opposition to a measure that promises to be an extraordinarily heavy lift for Democrats. They call the measure an attempt by Democrats to give themselves a permanent political advantage by driving up turnout among minority groups and by preventing Republicans, who control a majority of statehouses, from drawing new congressional districts later this year that would tilt the playing field in their favor.
“This bill is the single most dangerous bill this committee has ever considered,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. “This bill is designed to corrupt the election process permanently and it is a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.”
He falsely claimed that the bill would register millions of undocumented immigrants in the country illegally to vote and accused Democrats of wanting the most violent criminals to cast ballots, too. In fact, it is illegal for noncitizens to vote and the bill does nothing to change that or a requirement that people registering to vote swear they are citizens. It does extend the franchise to millions of former felons, as some states already do, but only after they have served their terms.
So far, not a single Republican supports the nearly 800-page bill, and Democrats are unlikely to win support even from all 50 of their members without substantial changes.
Democrats’ best hope for enacting the legislation increasingly appears to be to try to leverage its voting protections — which many liberals view as a life or death matter not just for American democracy, but their own political chances in the future — to justify triggering the Senate’s so-called nuclear option: the elimination of the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to advance most bills. For now though, even that remains out of reach as long as conservative Democrats in the 50-50 Senate are opposed.
To make the case against it, Republicans turned to two officials who backed an effort to overturn President Biden’s election victory. Mac Warner, the secretary of state of West Virginia, and Todd Rokita, the attorney general of Indiana, both supported a Texas lawsuit late last year asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in key battleground states Mr. Biden won, citing groundless claims of voting fraud and other irregularities being spread by former President Donald J. Trump.
Two former Republican chairmen of the Federal Election Commission also testified in opposition on Wednesday. Republicans were particularly outspoken against changes that would transform the body, which regulates federal elections, from a bipartisan and largely toothless entity into a more partisan and punitive one.
The bill proposes restructuring the F.E.C. from an evenly split bipartisan panel into one with an odd number of members, where a chairman selected by the president would effectively take control.
“Talk about ‘shame,’ ” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader.