The conflict played out in public as dissenting senators said they only wanted to “get the facts out” and critics said they were sabotaging democracy. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called the challenge “a very, very, bad idea,” adding, “I’m concerned about the division in America — that’s the biggest issue — but obviously this is not healthy for the Republican Party, either.”
It was the starkest illustration yet of the civil war that could engulf the Republican Party in the post-Trump era as factions prepare to battle over whether the party will continue down the unorthodox, scorched-earth path forged by President Trump or return to a more traditional brand of conservative politics. The back-and-forth came two days before a pair of special elections in Georgia that will determine whether the GOP retains control of the Senate.
Sunday’s clash was triggered by the plans of 12 senators to challenge as many as six states’ electoral vote tallies at Wednesday’s joint session of Congress, a usually routine procedure that this year is shaping up as the final opportunity of Trump loyalists to insist, without evidence, that President-elect Joe Biden’s win was somehow illegitimate.
In the House, a similar split developed: Several dozen GOP members have signaled they will question the results, prompting a top Republican leader to call the idea “an exceptionally dangerous precedent.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was narrowly elected to a fourth term as speaker Sunday, was among those noting that the challenge was almost certain to fail. But she said lawmakers have a responsibility to counter the dissenters’ claims.
“Our choice is not to use the forum to debate the presidency of Donald Trump,” she wrote in a letter to colleagues. “While there is no doubt as to the outcome of the Biden-Harris presidency, our further success is to convince more of the American people to trust in our democratic system.”
While the chances of derailing Biden’s victory are virtually nonexistent — doing so would require the Democratic-controlled House, for instance, to reject electoral votes for Biden — the event provides a stage for Republican lawmakers seeking to court Trump loyalists, who may be influential in the GOP for years to come, by proclaiming their fealty to the president.
The conflict began Saturday evening, when a group of 11 Republican senators announced they would join Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in challenging the electoral tally of one or more states, making it clear the revolt would not be a minor affair but would involve more than one-fifth of Senate Republicans.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) responded in a blistering statement that the effort “directly undermines” Americans’ right to choose their leaders, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called it an “egregious ploy.” Hawley shot back that Toomey and others were engaging in “shameless personal attacks.”
The back-and-forth spread throughout the party on Sunday as lawmakers returned to the Capitol for the swearing-in. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), among the challengers, argued the effort was no different from Democratic objections to the 1969 and 2005 counts. In those instances, however, the losing candidate had long since conceded, and the dissent was marginal.
“Our democracy is strong enough to handle conversations about electoral integrity issues,” Lankford said.
Should the challenges be rejected Wednesday, Lankford said he would “absolutely” accept Biden as the rightful president. “Our goal is obviously to try to get the facts out, more than to be able to vote against the electors,” he added.
Both Lankford and Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a former House member who was sworn in Sunday as a senator, said they were signing on to the challenge as a response to concerns from constituents worried about electoral improprieties.
“I think the people of Kansas feel disenfranchised,” Marshall said. “They want us to follow through on the many irregularities that they saw in this particular election.”
He brushed off the near-unanimous finding of courts and state officials, including Republicans, that the election was fair. “I don’t think that the courts have heard all the facts,” Marshall said. “And I think that my responsibility is to fulfill my duty to the Constitution, the oath that we just took.”
But many Republicans appeared distraught that the move would put party members on record as fighting the clear outcome of a democratic election.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said lawmakers had “a solemn responsibility to accept these electoral college votes that have been certified” by state officials. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) added, “I think the overwhelming weight of the evidence is that Joe Biden defeated my candidate, Donald Trump, and I have to live with it.”
Late Sunday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) issued a statement saying that he shares the “concerns of many Arkansans about irregularities in the presidential election,” but that the Founders “entrusted our elections chiefly to the states—not Congress,” and that he therefore will not oppose the counting of certified electoral votes.
The rare open conflict was an embarrassing spectacle for McConnell, who has for weeks urged Republicans to refrain from disputing the electoral tally. McConnell fears it will force his members into a politically difficult choice of either defying Trump or rejecting the electorate’s verdict.
While that is not expected to create an immediate problem for McConnell’s authority — he was reelected GOP leader by acclamation in November — it demonstrates that Trump’s departure from the White House will not diminish the intraparty tensions that made the past four years a high-wire act for many Republicans.
McConnell declined on Sunday to address the dissension in his ranks. “We’ll be dealing with all of that on Wednesday,” he said.
Democrats, for their part, warned that the dissenters’ actions could damage the country for years to come.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Republicans are “hurting themselves and hurting the democracy . . . to try to please somebody who has no fidelity to elections or even the truth.”
Democrats have been particularly exasperated by Trump supporters’ tactic of groundlessly claiming the election was unfair, then citing the voter doubts fueled by those claims as a reason for further investigation. Dozens of judges, including several appointed by Trump, have summarily rejected allegations that any fraud capable of changing the outcome occurred.
“There’s a political invasion of the body-snatchers which is taking place,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “Donald Trump and his supporters are now actually able to create a situation this coming Wednesday where people who are senators and House members are going to vote for something that is absolutely and totally untrue.”
The GOP turmoil also reached into the House, as Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, circulated a 21-page memo rebutting the case made by the dissenting senators. She urged members not to go down the path of questioning states’ voting tallies.
“Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states’ explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress,” Cheney wrote. “This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.”
Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) weighed in as well, saying that “it is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections.”
The turmoil reflected the rocky path that is likely to be ahead for what will be the most closely divided Congress in memory. The Senate would be split 50-50 if Democrats prevail in both Georgia races Tuesday, while the Democrats’ advantage in the House has dwindled to a handful of seats.
On Sunday, Pelosi became just the second lawmaker in the past 34 years to win a fourth term as speaker, claiming 216 votes to the 209 that Republicans cast for their leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Five moderate Democrats either voted “present” or supported another Democrat.
Pelosi’s vote total fell below the usual 218-vote threshold for a House majority in part because three lawmakers missed the vote due to illness, including two who recently tested positive for coronavirus.
Two House members voted even though they were still technically in quarantine, using a special, newly constructed alcove in the House gallery sealed off by plexiglass. Republicans accused Democrats of bending the quarantine rules to boost Pelosi’s vote total, but it did not change the outcome: Only two Democrats and one Republican — Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) — used that area to vote.
Scores of Democratic members have used new proxy voting procedures to weigh in from afar during the past seven months, but those procedures were not allowed for Sunday’s vote, so lawmakers had to appear in person.
The proceedings began on a somber note, with the announcement of an unexpected vacancy due to the death last week of Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, 41, a Louisiana Republican who had been hospitalized with covid-19.
Longtime lawmakers, accustomed to the joyous pomp and packed House chamber for their swearing-in, found the restrictions jarring. Only first-time members were allowed to bring a guest, for example.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), first elected in 1986, called the atmosphere “real different” after leaving the Capitol’s coronavirus testing site. “First time I’ve been without my family,” he said. “My wife’s always up in the gallery.”
The selection of the new speaker — historically made with all members on the floor and lawmakers rising one at a time in alphabetical order to shout their selection — was instead done in shifts, with 72 lawmakers called to the floor at a time.
Shortly before 5:30 p.m., Pelosi took the rostrum to speak before a chamber with fewer than 150 members, as the other two-thirds of the body watched on television.
She began by noting that a new Congress’s first day usually begins with a bipartisan service at a Capitol Hill church — but not this year.
“Until that is possible, let us pray personally.” Pelosi said. “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us.”
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.