Senate Power Shift Could Revive Election Reform Effort

 

With the Democrats now in control of the U.S. Senate, election reform not only has friends in high places, some proposals that were destined for an early grave now have new life. Bills that have been in the legislative wilderness for four or five months will now appear on committee schedules. Key supporters of election reform will now drive the Senates agenda and voting schedule. "Certainly, a Democratic majority has a greater interest in moving [election reform] forward," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "On balance, I think this gives it a nudge." 

Things didn't look so good for Sen. Christopher Dodd's election reform bill.

In March, Dodd introduced a bill that would force states to adopt federal voting rules including the installation of high-tech voting machines and new poll-worker and voter-education standards - to get government money.

Senators from both parties rejected Dodd's proposed mandates and came up with their own, more flexible election reform funding plans. The bills made news. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, could use his post to shepherd the bill through the panel and on to the Senate floor.

But now McConnell is getting demoted; Dodd is the new chair of the Senate's legislative traffic cop panel, thanks to a power shift triggered by Vermont Sen. James Jefford's decision to leave the Republican party and become an Independent.

The Jeffords move gave Senate Democrats a one vote majority.With the Democrats in control of the Senate, election reform efforts not only have friends in high places, some destined for an early grave now have new life. Bills that have been in the legislative wilderness for four or five months will now appear on committee schedules. Key supporters of election reform will now drive the Senate's agenda and voting schedule.

"Certainly, a Democratic majority has a greater interest in moving [election reform] forward," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "On balance, I think this gives it a nudge."

Democrats have their first real chance to reward their faithful by pushing their issues for the first time since President Clinton left the White House in January. Incoming Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., is keenly aware of the importance of election reform in some quarters, Mann said. "African Americans care about [election reform] more than anyone," Mann said. "They are a key constituency, and Daschle knows how important that is."

Democrats in key leadership posts have played an active role this year in introducing or co-sponsoring bills. Others have offered support for the concept of election reform without backing any specific legislation. The Senate's new tilt could have an immediate impact. 

  • Dodd's bill, once destined for the scrap heap, will receive a full hearing. As one committee staffer put it, "he has it right where he wants it to be." He also has Daschle as a co-sponsor.
  • Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., last year's vice-presidential runner-up, will take charge of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has held two hearings on election reform. Though Lieberman has always enjoyed close cooperation with outgoing chairman Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., the Connecticut lawmaker now moves from a front-row seat to a starring role.
  • Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the incoming chairman of the Health, Education and Labor Committee, sponsored Dodd's bill, along with Daschle.
  • New Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsored legislation to establish a federal blue ribbon commission to study voting nationwide.
  • Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the likely Senate Majority Whip, sponsored legislation that would empower the Federal Election Commission to establish national uniform voting standards and penalize states that fail to comply.

The impact of the change is not clear in the House. At the very least, some Republicans note, Democrats at the helm in the Senate could lead to a wider array of election reform bills to consider, including some that a number of GOP lawmakers have found unpalatable. "It creates a bigger picture," said Jim Forbes, spokesman for Rep. Bob Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, a panel now considering election reform legislation. "It won't change our timetable. The chairman is still committed to marking up legislation before the end of the month."

Mann said any doubts about the health of election reform bills in Congress should be laid to rest.

"The momentum is there," Mann said. "The odds are nothing will happen until the fall, but I do think now that it will happen."

 
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