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Democrats Begin Push for Biggest Expansion of Voting Since 1960s

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Democrats began pushing on Wednesday for the most substantial expansion of voting rights in a half-century, laying the groundwork in the Senate for what would be a fundamental change to the ways voters get to the polls and elections are run.

At a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders made a passionate case for a bill that would mandate automatic voter registration nationwide, expand early and mail-in voting, end gerrymandering that skews congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage and curb the influence of money in politics.

The effort is taking shape as Republicans have introduced more than 250 bills to restrict voting in 43 states and have continued to spread false accusations of fraud and impropriety in the 2020 election. It comes just months after those claims, spread by President Donald J. Trump as he sought to cling to power, fueled a deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 that showed how deeply his party had come to believe in the myth of a stolen election.

Republicans were unapologetic in their opposition to the measure, with some openly arguing that if Democrats succeeded in making it easier for Americans to vote and in enacting the other changes in the bill, it would most likely place their party permanently in the minority.

“Any American who thinks that the fight for a full and fair democracy is over is sadly and sorely mistaken,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader. “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.”

Mr. Schumer’s rare appearance at a committee meeting underscored the stakes, not just for the election process but for his party’s own political future. He called the proposed voting rollbacks in dozens of states — including Georgia, Iowa and Arizona — an “existential threat to our democracy” reminiscent of the Jim Crow segregationist laws of the past.

He chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at Republicans who were promoting them.

It was the start of an uphill battle by Senate Democrats, who have characterized what they call the For the People Act as the civil rights imperative of modern times, to overcome divisions in their own ranks and steer around Republican opposition to shepherd it into law. Doing so may require them to change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, once used by segregationists to block civil rights measures in the 1960s.

Republicans signaled they were ready to fight. Conceding that allowing more people to vote would probably hurt their candidates, they denounced the legislation, passed by the House this month, as a power grab by Democrats intent on federalizing elections to give themselves a permanent political advantage. They insisted that it was the right of states to set their own election laws, including those that make it harder to vote, and warned that Democrats’ proposal could lead to rampant fraud, which experts say has never been found to be widespread.

“This is an attempt by one party to write the rules of our political system,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who has spent much of his career opposing such changes.

“Talk about ‘shame,’” he added later.

Some Republicans resorted to lies or distortions to condemn the measure, falsely claiming that Democrats were seeking to cheat by enfranchising undocumented immigrants or encouraging illegal voting. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said the bill aimed to register millions of unauthorized immigrants, though that would remain unlawful under the measure.

The clash laid bare just how sharply the two parties have diverged on the issue of voting rights, which attracted bipartisan support for years after the civil rights movement but more recently has become a bitter partisan battleground. At times, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be wrestling with irreconcilably different views of the problems plaguing the election system.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee, which convened the hearing, said states were taking appropriate steps to restore public confidence after 2020 by imposing laws that require voters to show identification before voting and limiting so-called ballot harvesting, where others collect voters’ completed absentee ballots and submit them to election officials. He said that if Democrats were allowed to rush through changes on the national level, “chaos will reign in the next election and voters will have less confidence than they currently do.”

The suggestion piqued Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and the committee chairwoman, who shot back that it was the current elections system — an uneven patchwork of state laws and evolving voting rules — that had caused “chaos” at polling places.

“Chaos is what we’ve seen in the last years — five-hour or six-hour lines in states like Arizona to vote. Chaos is purging names of longtime voters from a voter list so they can’t go vote in states like Georgia,” she said. “What this bill tries to do is to simply make it easier for people to vote and take the best practices that what we’ve seen across the country, and put it into law as we are allowed to do under the Constitution.”

With Republicans unified against them, Democrats’ best hope for enacting the legislation increasingly appears to be to try to leverage its voting protections — 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.

Even that may be a prohibitively heavy lift, though, at least in the bill’s current form. Liberal activists who are spending tens of millions of dollars promoting it insist that the package must move as one bill. But Senator Joe Manchin III, a centrist West Virginia Democrat whose support they would need both to change the filibuster rules and to push through the elections bill, said on Wednesday that he would not support it in its current form.

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Mr. Manchin said he feared that pushing through partisan changes would create more “division” that the country could not afford after the Jan. 6 attack, and instead suggested narrowing the bill.

“There’s so much good in there, and so many things I think all of us should be able to be united around voting rights, but it should be limited to the voting rights,” he said. “We’re going to have a piece of legislation that might divide us even further on a partisan basis. That shouldn’t happen.”

But it is unclear whether even major changes could win Republican support in the Senate. As written, the more than 800-page bill, which passed the House 220 to 210 mostly along party lines, is the most ambitious elections overhaul in generations, chock-full of provisions that experts say would drive up turnout, particularly among minorities who tend to vote Democratic. Many of them are anathema to Republicans.

Its voting provisions alone would create minimum standards for states, neutering voter ID laws, restoring voting rights to former felons, and putting in place requirements like automatic voter registration and no-excuse mail-in balloting. Many of the restrictive laws proposed by Republicans in the states would move in the opposite direction.

The bill would also require states to use independent commissions to draw nonpartisan congressional districts, a change that would weaken the advantages of Republicans who control the majority of state legislatures currently in charge of drawing those maps. It would force super PACs to disclose their big donors and create a new public campaign financing system for congressional candidates.

Democrats also said they still planned to advance a separate bill restoring a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling gutted it. The ruling paved the way for many of the restrictive state laws Democrats are now fighting.

In the hearing room on Wednesday, Republicans ticked through a long list of provisions they did not like, including a restructuring of the Federal Election Commission to make it more partisan and punitive, a host of election administration changes they predicted would cause mass “chaos” if carried out and the public campaign financing system.

“This bill is the single most dangerous bill this committee has ever considered,” Mr. Cruz said. “This bill is designed to corrupt the election process permanently, and it is a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.”

Mr. Cruz falsely claimed that the bill would register undocumented immigrants 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 would do nothing to change that or a requirement that people registering to vote swear they are citizens. It would extend the franchise to millions of former felons, as some states already do, but only after they have served their sentences.

Though few senators mentioned him by name, Mr. Trump and his false claims of election fraud hung heavily over the debate.

To make their case, Republicans turned to two officials who backed an effort to overturn then-President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’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 accusations of voting improprieties being spread by Mr. Trump.

On Wednesday, Democrats balked when Mr. Rokita, a former Republican congressman, asserted that their proposed changes would “open our elections up to increased voter fraud and irregularities” like the ones that he said had caused widespread voter mistrust in the 2020 outcome.

Senator Jon Ossoff, a freshman Democrat from Georgia, chastised the attorney general, saying he was spreading misinformation and conspiracies.

“I take exception to the comments that you just made, Mr. Rokita, that public concern regarding the integrity of the recent election is born of anything but a deliberate and sustained misinformation campaign led by a vain former president unwilling to accept his own defeat,” Mr. Ossoff said.

Mr. Rokita merely scoffed and repeated an earlier threat to sue to block the legislation from being carried out should it ever become law, a remedy that many Republican-led states would most likely pursue if Democrats were able to win its enactment.

“You are entitled to your opinion, as misinformed as it may be, but I share the opinion of Americans,” Mr. Rokita said.

Sixty-five percent of voters believe the election was free and fair, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted in late January, but only 32 percent of Republicans believe that.



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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”



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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.



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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.



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