The gang is working to make it harder for senators and House members to challenge presidential election results, as well as to clarify the vice president’s role in election certification as ceremonial. Capito predicted that at least 10 Republicans could eventually come on board the final product: “There’s a sweet spot of getting at least 60 people, and maybe more if we keep it narrow and focused and repair what needs to be repaired. It will probably take longer than people think.”
In interviews with a dozen GOP senators over the past week, Cruz (R-Texas) came out most forcefully against the group’s ongoing work to raise the bar for challenging elections in Congress.
“I don’t think a political stunt designed to go after President Trump is a worthwhile expenditure of time and energy,” Cruz said.
And Hawley (R-Mo.) warned senators to be “really careful about messing around with a law that’s been on the books that long, that’s governed that many elections.”
It’s not necessarily surprising that two senators who led objections to the certification of the 2020 results would question those who want to hamstring their ability to do so in the future. But it points to a gulf in the party over whether to dive into the Electoral Count Act or stay away from it altogether — and avoid another conflict with Trump.
Last year, 19 Senate Republicans defied the former president and supported the bipartisan infrastructure law. But the idea of restricting election challenges, under the assumption that it would prevent a future Capitol riot-style attack, is significantly more sensitive for Republicans, given Trump’s obsession with his loss and his recent assertion that former Vice President Mike Pence should have “overturned the election.”
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Trump’s words will have an impact on GOP senators: “Any time he speaks out on an issue, it gets some people’s attention.” But Thune argued the GOP’s reservations also center on trying to move so quickly to a bipartisan bill after Democrats forced a vote on weakening the filibuster in order to pass sweeping election reform.
“I don’t think there’s any particular rush. These guys tried to blow up the Senate two weeks ago. Rewarding them by giving a win on something — especially if they’re going to try and force their agenda into this — is not something that some of our members are crazy about doing right away,” Thune said.
Initially, most of the resistance to the work came from Democrats, who saw the Electoral Count Act as a distraction from the party’s work on a sweeping elections and Voting Rights Act package. That reform push failed, leaving Democrats more open to seeing what the bipartisan group can produce. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that “reforming the Electoral College is a good thing to do, but it sure doesn’t replace the need to deal with voting rights.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is more overtly encouraging the group to work on updating the arcane law, and though they’ve held multiple meetings, most recently on Wednesday, they are not close to a finished product. The group is looking at raising the threshold for objecting to a state’s presidential election result higher than one senator and House member, making it clear the vice president has no role other than to count votes, enhancing protections for election officials and reauthorizing an expired voting grants program.
At their core, those reforms could have prevented or minimized the pro-Trump insurrection last year. A higher threshold may have prevented any votes or debate on election certification, and Congress would have completed its work more quickly before rioters entered the Capitol and disrupted the proceedings. And clarifying the vice president’s role would formally quash Trump’s disputed theory that the vice president could unilaterally overturn an election.
“There will be fairly widespread agreement that [the vice president’s role] needs to be clarified,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the lead GOP organizer of the effort. She added that there was also “pretty much a consensus” that one member in each chamber being enough to object to a state’s election results is “far too low a threshold.”
Given the fluidity of Collins’ work, many Republicans declined to take a firm view on the group’s proposed reforms, though some were surprisingly open to the idea. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who initially sought to challenge the 2020 election results but did not ultimately vote to overturn them, called the Electoral Count Act “antiquated” and said it should take more than one member of each chamber to force a vote.
“There could definitely be some clarifications. And it could be something we could do in a bipartisan way if the other side is willing to leave politics out of it,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted to certify the election results.
The most skepticism lies among those senators that voted against certifying the elections. Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said it was unnecessary to revisit the law and that there’s “a lot of convincing to be done to think we need to do anything with it.” Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), one of eight senators who voted to block Biden’s win, said he’s “not against making it better, I’m against doing something to just say we did something.”
Even some of those who sided against Trump’s efforts to overturn the election are openly questioning whether it should be a priority for the evenly split Senate.
“I’ve never seen a bigger disconnect between what actually matters on an hourly basis in our country versus what we spent our time on here,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is neutral on the reforms being discussed. “We could talk about inflation, we could talk about supply chain disruptions, talk about labor shortages … there’s virtually no conversation about that here.”