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Senate Republican leader backs revisions to elections law after Trump-fueled ‘chaos’

McConnell says he will ‘proudly support’ overhauling rules for certifying votes, after former president and allies attempted to overturn Biden win, sparking Jan. 6 insurrection

Insurrectionists loyal to then-US president Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Insurrectionists loyal to then-US president Donald Trump try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he will “proudly support” legislation to overhaul rules for certifying presidential elections, bolstering a bipartisan effort to revise a 19th-century law and avoid another January 6 insurrection.

The legislation would clarify and expand parts of the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which, along with the Constitution, governs how states and Congress certify electors and declare presidential winners.

The changes in the certification process are in response to unsuccessful efforts by former US president Donald Trump and his allies to exploit loopholes in the law to overturn his 2020 defeat to Joe Biden, and the violent attack on the Capitol by his supporters as Congress counted the votes.

“Congress’ process for counting the presidential electors’ votes was written 135 years ago,” McConnell said. “The chaos that came to a head on Jan. 6 of last year certainly underscored the need for an update.”

McConnell made the remarks just before the Senate Rules Committee voted 14-1 to approve the bill and send it to the Senate floor, where a vote is expected after the November election. The only senator to vote against the legislation was Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one the senators to stand and object to Biden’s certification last year.

The GOP leader’s endorsement gave the legislation a major boost as the bipartisan group pushes to pass the bill before the end of the year and ahead of the next election cycle. Trump is still pushing false claims of election fraud and saying he won the election as he considers another run in 2024. McConnell’s support for the law could put him even more at odds with Trump, who frequently berates the GOP leader and has encouraged Republicans to vote against it.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, speaks to Republican Senator Richard Shelby, right, as they attend a Senate Rules and Administration Committee meeting on the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, at the Capitol in Washington, September 27, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The House has already passed a more expansive bill overhauling the electoral rules, but it has far less Republican support. While the House bill received a handful of GOP votes, the Senate version already has the backing of at least 12 Republicans — more than enough to break a filibuster and pass the legislation in the 50-50 Senate.

As he announced his support, McConnell noted that Democrats also objected to legitimate election results the last three times that Republicans won the presidency.

“The situation obviously called for careful, methodical and bipartisan work,” he said, noting that the bipartisan group that negotiated the bill worked on the language for months.

McConnell called the House bill a “non-starter” in the Senate because of the bipartisan compromise on the Senate language. “We have one shot to get this right,” he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Rules panel, expressed a similar sentiment. The Senate legislation is the bill that “will achieve a strong bipartisan consensus,” she said.

Cruz, who stood with Trump as he made false claims of fraud in 2020, called the legislation a “bad bill” and said it would make it harder for Congress to challenge fraudulent elections. He questioned why any Republican would support it.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz steps out of the Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, August 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The bill is all about “Democratic rage” at Trump, Cruz said.

Still, Cruz was the only dissenter. Among the Republicans on the Rules panel who voted for the bill shortly after McConnell’s statement were Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, one of only eight senators to vote against Biden’s certification, and Tennessee Senator Bill Hagerty, a strong Trump ally.

Senators made minor tweaks to the legislation at Tuesday’s meeting but kept the bill largely intact. The bill, written by Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would make clear that the vice president only has a ceremonial role in the certification process, tighten the rules around states sending their votes to Congress and make it harder for lawmakers to object.

The changes are a direct response to Trump, who publicly pressured several states, members of Congress and then-vice president Mike Pence to aid him as he tried to undo Biden’s win. Even though Trump’s effort failed, lawmakers in both parties said his attacks on the election showed the need for stronger safeguards in the law.

Former US president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, September 3, 2022. (AP Photo/ Mary Altaffer)

If it becomes law, the bill would be Congress’ strongest legislative response yet to the January 6, 2021, attack, in which hundreds of Trump’s supporters beat police officers, broke into the Capitol and interrupted the joint session as lawmakers were counting the votes. Once the rioters were cleared, the House and Senate rejected GOP objections to the vote in two states. But more than 140 Republicans voted to sustain them.

Differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be resolved before final passage, including language around congressional objections.

While the Senate bill would require a fifth of both chambers to agree on an electoral objection to trigger a vote, the House bill would require agreement from at least a third of House members and a third of the Senate. Currently, only one member of each chamber is required for the House and Senate to vote on whether to reject a state’s electors.

The House bill also lays out new grounds for objections, while the Senate does not.

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