ATLANTA — Taking their case for a federal voting bill to Georgia, Senate Democrats argued at a field hearing on Monday that their sweeping elections measure is desperately needed to counter the impact of new GOP state laws that tighten voting rules.
"Congress must take action on voting rights, and we have no time to spare," U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, said in testimony before the Senate Rules Committee. "We Americans live in a great house that democracy built, and right now that house is on fire."
Democrats used the rare field hearing in Atlanta to gain attention for their voting and elections overhaul, which remains blocked by unified Republican opposition and disagreement among Senate Democrats about whether to change procedural rules in the evenly divided Senate to get it passed.
Without a clear path forward, Democrats are seeking to keep the spotlight on voting issues, as they search for other ways to pass less sweeping voting proposals. On Sunday, committee chair Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Democrats were considering adding financial incentives for states to adopt new voting procedures into a multitrillion-dollar bill bolstering environmental and social programs.
Monday's hearing was held in a conference room at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, which senators called a powerful reminder of the long struggle for voting rights in the U.S.
"We are here today in Atlanta to shine a spotlight on what has been happening in Georgia and in states around the country to undermine the freedom to vote," said Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.
The federal bill, known as the For the People Act, would create minimum voting standards in the U.S., such as same-day and automatic voter registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. The bill would also change various campaign finance and ethics laws.
Republicans, though, have united in opposition, calling the bill a Democratic power grab and saying the changes amount to a federal takeover of elections, which are administered in the U.S. at the state and local level.
No Republicans attended the hearing, and they did not provide witnesses.
"This silly stunt is based on the same lie as all the Democrats' phony hysteria from Georgia to Texas to Washington D.C. and beyond — their efforts to pretend that moderate, mainstream state voting laws with more generous early-voting provisions than blue states like New York are some kind of evil assault on our democracy," GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Republicans last month blocked an effort to debate the Democratic bill, and Democrats will have to decide whether they want to change Senate filibuster rules to ultimately pass the bill. At least two Democratic senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have said they oppose eliminating the filibuster rule.
Manchin, who initially opposed the bill, has crafted a new version that would remove some of the more contentious provisions and add a national ID requirement, something Democrats had not previously advocated for.
Much of Monday's hearing focused on a GOP-backed elections bill that was signed into law by Georgia's Republican Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year.
The Georgia law adds a voter ID requirement for mail ballots, shortens the time period for requesting a mailed ballot and results in fewer ballot drop boxes available in metro Atlanta. Several lawsuits have been filed over the law, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We desperately need your help," Georgia state Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat from metro Atlanta, told the senators during the hearing. "Where you live shouldn't determine how hard it is to vote or whether or not your vote counts. This is the time to take action, to pass national voting standards, and I implore you to do so."
Georgia Republicans have pushed back against claims that their election law makes it harder to vote, noting the state offers many of the measures being sought by Democrats in the federal bill, such as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic registration.
Kemp, speaking to reporters on a call organized by the Republican National Committee, called Monday's hearing a publicity stunt and defended Georgia's new voting law as a "common-sense reform measure."
"It doesn't matter if it's the DOJ, the DNC or the Senate Democrats, we aren't backing down," he said. "We're going to continue to fight for the truth and we're going to stand up for secure, accessible and fair elections."