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Senate Democrats ready a package of democracy reforms

Responding to growing public concern, Democrats in the Senate are working on bills aimed at reducing the influence of big money in politics.
Sen. Charles Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid talk with reporters after the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Sen. Charles Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid talk with reporters after the weekly Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Amid growing public concern over the flood of big money in politics and the erosion of voting rights, Senate Democrats are poised to introduce a package of pro-democracy measures.

The legislation, which should be finalized by the middle of next month, isn’t likely to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate. But it could further boost the profile of the issue and perhaps tee it up for action in 2017. And it could give Democrats an additional weapon against the GOP in tight Senate races.

Until recently, many in Washington have seen election-reform issues as too dry and process-oriented to galvanize the public. But the surprising success of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, whose central thrust is that loose campaign finance rules give special interests too much influence, helped change that. And polls show huge majorities of Americans think moneyed interests have too much sway in Washington. Last month, hundreds of activists were arrested after holding a sit-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in support of campaign finance reform and voting rights.

RELATED: Hundreds arrested at Capitol protest on voting and campaign finance

“I think people are really disgusted with their political system,” Sen. Tom Udall, who is helping put the package together, said in an interview. “It’s built to the level that you’re hearing the term ‘rigged’ … you’re hearing the term ‘corrupt’ used a lot more. I think it has built to a point where people really want to see something done about this.”

The package, which was first reported by National Journal Wednesday, is still being put together in a process helmed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will take over next year as the Senate Democratic leader. But several reform measures introduced in recent years by Democrats offer a  picture of what it will likely include.

One is a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and other recent Supreme Court rulings that have weakened campaign finance law. Such an amendment has almost no chance of passing, but the idea has strong support among progressive activists and has been endorsed by both Hillary Clinton and Sanders.  

Another bill is the Disclose Act, which aims to reduce “dark money” by requiring outside groups that spend money on politics to make the identities of their donors public.

Then there's a bill that would replace the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which has been neutered by its Republican-appointed commissioners’ consistent refusal to enforce campaign finance laws, with a five-member independent agency.

Udall described the FEC as "completely broken," adding, “There’s no watchdog over the system anymore.”

On the voting front, the FAIR Act aims to end gerrymandering by requiring states to establish independent commissions to draw district lines, taking the process out of the hands of partisan lawmakers. President Obama gave that issue a plug in his final State of the Union address in January, declaring, “I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around.”

And Sen. Claire McCaskill is said to be working on reforms to boost voter participation that would also be included in the package. It isn’t known if that would include automatic voter registration, which has rapidly been gaining support among Democrats and is seen as having the potential to transform the electorate. Since last year, the policy has been adopted by five states, with more likely to follow.

There are other efforts to address voting rights on Capitol Hill. A group of Democratic lawmakers earlier this week announced the formation of the Voting Rights Caucus, which has 50 members, all Democrats. They said they’ll introduce legislation next month that would ban voter ID laws that force voters to pay an associated cost, for instance by requiring them to obtain a birth certificate to get ID. Two separate measures also have been offered in recent years to restore to full strength the Voting Rights Act, which in 2013 was badly weakened by the Supreme Court, opening the door to a range of voting restrictions in Southern states.