WASHINGTON — The usually obscure Senate Rules Committee is the most insider of insider panels, typically responsible for doling out precious Capitol office space, keeping the Senate running and handling fights over arcane floor procedures.
But circumstances and the ambitions of the committee’s current chairwoman, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, have thrust the panel into the middle of things. In just six months, she has spearheaded a push for a sweeping voting rights bill sought by Democrats while her committee has investigated failings in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. The panel was also in charge of staging President Biden’s inauguration, only two weeks after the deadly riot.
“For so long people have been focused, understandably, on the inner workings of the Senate with the Rules Committee,” said Ms. Klobuchar, who answered with an emphatic “yes” when asked if she was trying to turn the panel into a force. “But the point is we have a bigger jurisdiction, and that’s our democracy.”
In line with that focus, the panel will convene its first field hearing in 20 years in Atlanta on Monday as it seeks to put a spotlight on the new voting restrictions being imposed by Republican state legislatures there and elsewhere, hoping to build a case for the seemingly fatally stalled voting rights measure. It is part of a rare move by the Rules Committee to try its hand at legislating — or at least agenda-setting — on a prominent policy issue.
“This is a concerted effort against our democracy,” Ms. Klobuchar said of the nationwide push by Republicans. “It is a perpetuation of this lie that somehow this election involved fraud and that Joe Biden wasn’t the rightful winner. To me, that’s what this is about.”
Republicans, who are not likely to have much of a presence at the hearing, are fiercely opposed to the legislation that Democrats say would protect voters, particularly people of color, from Republican efforts to make it more difficult to cast ballots. They shrugged off the Atlanta event as a Democratic show, even as they conceded that Ms. Klobuchar had every right to stage it.
“She is chair of the committee and that is a hot issue with Democrats,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and a former chairman of the Rules Committee.
While the panel’s emphasis on overseeing the day-to-day business of the Senate can make it seem like a backwater, it has often been led by shrewd players like Mr. Shelby. Given its power to allocate meeting rooms and coveted office space and hand out other perks, those overseeing the panel can reward allies and punish adversaries while building clout in the chamber.
The two current Senate leaders, Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, have both served as chairmen of the Rules Committee and are both members of the panel. Senate legends such as Mike Mansfield, the former majority leader from Montana, have also headed the committee.
The panel may be known for overseeing mundane matters like Senate food services, but the institution’s rules give it a much broader purview, like “federal elections generally, including the election of the president, vice president and members of the Congress.” That portfolio can translate into influence if the head of the committee chooses to exercise it.
“When you have a chair who has the time, the energy and the interest to make something of the committee’s jurisdiction, it can have real power,” said Jean Bordewich, a former Democratic staff director of the panel who is now with the U.S. democracy program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. “Right now, elections are front and center.”
As a result of the committee’s election responsibilities, Ms. Klobuchar and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the senior Republican on the panel and a former chairman, found themselves at the center of the counting of presidential electoral votes and the horrific events the usually routine count incited. Ms. Klobuchar said she began worrying about the electoral vote ceremony after the election, but never expected the violent assault on the Capitol that interrupted the proceedings and forced lawmakers into a secure location as the Capitol Police battled the Trump loyalists who stormed the building.
As they remained sequestered, Ms. Klobuchar said she had a message for her colleagues: Once it was safe to do so, the House and Senate would complete the presidential tally.
“We will finish our job,” Ms. Klobuchar said she told them. “And everyone cheered.” In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, she and Mr. Blunt returned to the House, stepping over broken glass and other evidence of the breach, to conclude the count.
But the assault — coupled with the pandemic — raised new fears about sticking to the inauguration plan on the western terrace of the Capitol, as some pressed to limit the proceedings as a safeguard. She and Mr. Blunt, who have a good working and personal relationship, insisted on sticking to the traditional approach to demonstrate that the Capitol attack had not halted the transfer of power. They were determined to hold the inaugural on the temporary platform that the rioters had climbed and badly damaged only weeks before.
“There were members who wanted to move the inaugural inside, particularly after Jan. 6, but both the president-elect and his team and our committee wanted to keep it as nearly as possible to what everyone around the world expected to see,” Mr. Blunt said. “And I think we did.”
In an aggressive move after the assault, Ms. Klobuchar reached out to Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who is the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to propose they formally conduct a quick investigation. After hearings, the panel recommended changes in a bipartisan report deemed credible though limited in scope. And that is where the bipartisanship ended, as Ms. Klobuchar backed the idea of an independent panel to do a deeper dive while Mr. Blunt and almost all Republicans opposed the idea.
“We both viewed our report as important,” she said. “I just felt we needed more.”
Mr. Blunt is also a leading opponent of the voting rights measure he calls the Democratic attempt to “try to take federal control of the election process.” Though he will not attend Monday’s session, he said he would be interested to see “if that hearing adds anything to the discussion.”
The question for the elections measure is what can be done to advance it over unanimous and deep Republican opposition. Democrats currently lack the votes to eliminate the filibuster and force through the measure themselves. Ms. Klobuchar conceded that a Democrats-only budget reconciliation measure that is protected from filibuster would be one potential route for some election provisions, but that they would be limited by stringent rules.
“We will do whatever we can,” she said.
Ms. Klobuchar, who ran for president in 2020, dismissed a suggestion that her high-profile stewardship of the panel was connected to her own political goals, a way to keep her in the national discussion.
“It’s my job,” she said of a role that has not always been a draw for politicians trying to make a name for themselves. “It is not the job that everyone would have picked, but it was my job and I was, in my mind, at the right place at the right time.”