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Internal GOP conflicts about 2020 election surface as party fights new voting laws

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Democrats are forging ahead this week with a plan to show the public that Republicans are unwilling to back federal voting rights protections. The legislation they want to pass is doomed to fail. Meanwhile, Republicans are fighting back with a campaign that's laid bare an internal fight over whether to move on from the 2020 election and lies about who won. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has the story.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says Democrats' plans to pass new voting rights legislation are nothing more than a power grab.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: This is misinformation. It's a big lie designed to reduce faith in our democracy, justify top-down election takeover and justify smashing the Senate itself.

SNELL: McConnell says Democrats are creating false fears about ballot access in the country. He and other top deputies point to statistics that more than 90% of voters said voting was easy in 2020. They say the election was free and fair. But others in their party, including former President Trump, continue to promote the falsehood that the election was rigged. Many call that conspiracy theory the big lie. Now Republicans are trying to redefine it. Florida Senator Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP re-election effort, repeated the phrase Tuesday on a call with reporters.

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RICK SCOTT: The entire Democrat Party (ph), from Biden on down, is just engaged in an absolutely big lie when it comes to election reform. The Democrat big lie is any election reform suggested by Republicans are intended to suppress voters from voting and are racist.

SNELL: The term big lie became a part of the recent political lexicon shortly after the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Then-President-elect Biden compared Republican senators to Nazi propagandists for promoting lies about the election. Democrats are furious now that McConnell is leading the charge to redefine the phrase.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: Now he says Democrats have the big lie. That's gaslighting. What McConnell did on the big lie is a classic definition of gaslighting.

SNELL: That's Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking to reporters this week in the Capitol. He says Republicans are trying to defend the fairness of the 2020 election and reject election reforms even as Trump continues to falsely repeat the lie that he did not lose in 2020 and continues to attack Republicans who disagree, people like Mike Rounds of South Dakota who made his position clear Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

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MIKE ROUNDS: The election was fair, as fair as we've seen. We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.

SNELL: Trump immediately attacked Rounds for his remarks and has spent the week attacking any Republican who defends him, including McConnell. Democrats say those attacks and Trump's continued pressure on Republicans are the entire reason that Democrats feel they need to pass new voting protections. They say Republican states have moved to restrict voting access since 2020 and Congress must act to prevent any further erosion of election rights.

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SCHUMER: Our argument is what they're doing now is going to make 2022 a very unfair election.

SNELL: But McConnell says the fight about election laws isn't just about preventing federal intervention in state laws or even ballot access. He says it's about protecting the Constitution and the system of checks and balances. And he accuses Biden of abandoning his promises.

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MCCONNELL: Twelve months ago, this president said disagreement must not lead to disunion. But yesterday, he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War - the Civil War.

SNELL: By going after the president today, McConnell is trying to draw focus away from Trump and make Democrats the enemy.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAECHULGI'S "CALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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