The test for what the Republican Party will be in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency is coming in a little over 24 hours and on the heels of Georgia Senate runoffs that will finally determine the balance of the US Senate.
But the price Republicans could pay for defying Trump and certifying the results of a fair and free election is already coming into clear view.
The bottom line: The divide you are seeing rip through the Republican Party right now isn’t between conservatives and moderates. This isn’t the Freedom Caucus vs. leadership. It’s not even as simple as members who might run for President in 2024 vs. those who will not. What you are seeing right now is a gamble members are taking on whether the GOP can finally shake Trump going forward or whether there is no way to win the White House again without him on their side.
Republican aides and members opposed to this effort are watching this play out and hoping that voters will have moved on from Trump in the next several years. The hope is that this vote does not become a litmus test for whether outside groups wage primary challenges against those who were not loyal to the President in his last days in office. Only time will tell how consequential this vote will really be. Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned members that for him, it is one of the most important of his career.
The heartburn for members right now
McConnell has undoubtedly been an ally, pushing through three Supreme Court justices for the President, remaking the courts and orchestrating a massive tax overhaul. Lawmakers gave Trump money for a wall. They waited out every impulse, tried hard not to see bombastic tweets, and now, if members aren’t with the President on overturning the election, they are being ridiculed and attacked by him as if they never walked the line for him in the past.
Republican members and aides who had considered themselves allies of Trump on Capitol Hill aren’t surprised the President demands loyalty, but they’re clearly frustrated by the position they are in.
“It is disappointing this vote has become the exclusive litmus test for whether or not a member of Congress stands with President Trump,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said in a statement. “One would have a hard time finding a more fervent, consistent, longstanding supporter of this President than I have been since he first announced his candidacy.”
As one Republican aide put it to me, every member who is following Trump down this path to overturn the election has to remember that it will all be for nothing if they ever disagree with Trump down the line.
“If you get on the Trump Train, it’s not a buffet where you get to pick and choose what to take and what to leave. You are force fed everything,” the aide said.
What we know about Wednesday
A joint session of Congress will convene at 1 p.m. ET. Members are being encouraged to watch the proceedings remotely given the pandemic, but it’s just as likely that the chamber will be packed. Leadership offices have warned there is little they can do to discourage members from showing up for what is expected to be a historic moment.
The expectation is that Vice President Mike Pence will preside over the session. He was spotted meeting with the Senate’s parliamentarian Sunday. Then, the four tellers: Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California will read and tally the votes from every state in alphabetical order.
This can be sped up if there is agreement: The entire process, for example, took just 40 minutes in 2017.
At each state, the vice president, in his role as the president of the Senate, will call to ask if there are any objections. If there is an objection it will have to come from one senator and one member of the House and be turned over in writing. At that point, the joint session breaks up, and both chambers debate separately for up to two hours. They will then vote on the objection and resume the joint session.
Given the safety protocols in the House of Representatives for voting, we expect that this process will take much longer for the House to get through every time the joint session is interrupted. Only twice have there been a formal Senate and House objection to the the tally. Once in 1969 and once in 2005. Both objections were voted down.
What we still don’t know
We still don’t know how many official objections there will be. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican of Missouri, has made it clear he will object to at least Pennsylvania’s results, but a source familiar with his thinking has said he is still reviewing whether he will object to other states as well. There is a long list of House members willing to sign onto objections from senators, but a senator has to sign on to make it a viable debate.
Without knowing how many states might be objected to, there is no way to predict how long Wednesday will go. We may get more clarity on Tuesday, but we may have to watch this play out in real time. I am told by a Senate GOP source that Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the 11 members who signed a statement Saturday saying they will support objections are still considering whether they will object to particular states or merely vote for the objections that Hawley brings. The outcome of the Georgia election could also factor into senators’ thinking: If GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue both win, does that change the calculus for whether members want to challenge the state of Georgia, for example? Will members be ready to move on more quickly?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how Wednesday will unfold. The mechanics of the day, while clearly spelled out by law, give individual members a lot of power over how long they can drag this out.
One last thing to remember
For years, McConnell has managed to keep his conference together through fights over the Supreme Court, a tax overhaul and even the passage of some of the largest stimulus packages in the country’s history. He’s legendary for his ability to use arcane Senate procedures to realize his political ambitions. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare one of the only true defeats McConnell has suffered in his Senate tenure.
But the vote Wednesday was always outside his control. While he privately urged his members to stay away from it, cognizant it could affect members up for reelection in 2022, McConnell has largely told members to vote their conscience now that the vote will occur. Members and aides say McConnell has been a sounding board for members on the fence, but he realizes he cannot ultimately control the whims of every office. That’s never been his style.
The breakdown in the Senate
Those Republicans voting against a challenge:
- Rob Portman of Ohio
- Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia
- Tom Cotton of Arkansas
- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
- Mitt Romney of Utah
- Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania
- Mike Lee of Utah
- Kevin Cramer of North Dakota
- Mitch McConnell of Kentucky
- John Thune of South Dakota
- Roy Blunt of Missouri
- John Cornyn of Texas
- Susan Collins of Maine
- Ben Sasse of Nebraska
- John Hoeven of North Dakota
The Republicans voting for a challenge:
- Ted Cruz of Texas
- Josh Hawley of Missouri
- Ron Johnson of Wisconsin
- James Lankford of Oklahoma
- Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming
- John Kennedy of Louisiana
- Steve Daines of Montana
- Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee
- Mike Braun of Indiana
- Bill Hagerty of Tennessee
- Tommy Tuberville of Alabama
- Roger Marshall of Kansas
- Kelly Loeffler of Georgia