7 Big Moments in Congress’ Debate of Electoral College Vote for President

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Congress was poised to certify Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory making him the nation’s 46th president, following lawmakers’ debate Wednesday that went past midnight after being interrupted by rioters who stormed the Capitol in the afternoon. 

The rioters forced a lockdown of the Capitol that suspended lawmakers’ debate in a joint session of Congress over counting and certifying the electoral votes by which Biden defeated President Donald Trump. The expected outcome officially would make Biden president-elect and pave the way for his inauguration as president Jan. 20.

Before the breach of the Capitol building in the afternoon, apparently largely by protesters who support Trump, members of the House and Senate were beginning to object formally to the Electoral College votes from Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. 

A woman identified as an Air Force veteran and Trump supporter reportedly was fatally shot by police inside the Capitol during the chaos, and authorities said three other deaths occurred following medical emergencies during the violence.

Capitol Police and other law enforcement agencies appeared to secure the building by around 5:30 p.m., but lawmakers did not resume debate until nearly 8:30 p.m. 

By 11:30, lawmakers had rejected the challenge to Arizona’s electoral votes for Biden. Shortly afterward, senators withdrew their objection to Georgia’s electoral votes for Biden, apparently leaving only Pennsylvania with disputed results.

Here are seven key moments that occurred before and after lawmakers were forced to suspend their debate of evidence of voter fraud and other election irregularities and shelter in place. 

1. ‘Violence Never Wins. Freedom Wins’

After the Senate reconvened, Vice President Mike Pence, a former House member from Indiana, opened up the session with remarks.

“We grieve the loss of life in these hallowed halls, as well as the injuries suffered by those who defended our Capitol today and we will always be grateful to the men and women who stayed at their posts to defend this historic place,” said Pence, serving in his role as president of the Senate. 

He added: 

To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house. And as we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy, for even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this Capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Pence closed by saying: “May God bless all who serve here and those who protect this place, and may God bless the United States of America. Let’s get back to work.”

Opening the House session Wednesday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a similar message. 

“To those who strove to deter us from our responsibility, you have failed,” Pelosi said. “To those who engaged in the gleeful desecration of this, our temple of democracy, American democracy, justice will be done.”

On the House floor, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called for bipartisanship, praised some Democratic colleagues, and condemned the violent breach of the Capitol. 

“Mobs don’t rule America. Laws rule America. It was true when our cities were burning this summer and it is true now,” McCarthy said, adding: “Nobody has the right to become a mob, and we all should stand united in condemning a mob together.”

The comment prompted applause. 

Nevertheless, McCarthy was clear that discussion of election integrity was not off limits, noting that in 2005, Pelosi praised the debate over awarding Ohio’s Electoral College votes:

I know what we debate today is tough, but it’s just, it’s right. This isn’t the first side of the aisle that has ever debated this issue. I thought about when Madam Speaker said back in 2005, ‘This is democracy at its best,’ when they talked about a presidential election in Ohio. These are the moments that we should raise the issue about integrity and accountability and accuracy in our elections. Do you know what we should do? Not just raise the issues, but work together to solve the problems.

2. Pence Reaction to Trump Strategy

Before the chaos sparked by the rioters, significant debate occurred in the early afternoon. 

In total, the Electoral College on Dec. 14 awarded 306 votes to Biden, the former vice president who was the Democratic nominee, and 232 votes to Trump, the Republican nominee, but Congress still had to certify those results. 

For weeks, Trump supporters wondered what Pence, the president’s loyal second, would do in overseeing the certification process in his role as president of the Senate.

Trump and supporters argued that Pence has the authority to discard electors’ votes that appear irregular. 

In a letter to members of Congress ahead of the joint session, however, Pence made himself clear. 

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence wrote.

After Arizona’s 11 electoral votes were raised for Biden, Pence only asked: “Are there any objections to counting the certificate of votes from the state of Arizona that the teller has verified appears to be regular in form and authentic?”

Although Pence didn’t discard Arizona’s electoral votes, the state got an objection as expected when Rep. Paul Gossar, R-Ariz., rose to object. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then rose to affirm the objection was in writing and signed by a senator as required by law to meet the threshold for debate. 

The objection was followed by applause from other lawmakers who support such challenges. 

For an objection to be debated–under the Electoral Count Act of 1887–a House member and senator must sign on. After that, an objection is to be debated in both the House and Senate separately. 

“An objection presented in writing and signed by both a representative and a senator complies with the law, Chapter 1, Title 3 of the United States code,” Pence said. 

After the clerk read the objections, the vice president said:

Are there further objections to the certificates of the state of Arizona? The chair hears none. The two houses will withdraw from the joint session. Each house will deliberate separately on the pending objection and report its decision back to the joint session. The Senate will now retire to its chamber.

Earlier in the day, Trump said during a speech at a rally that he would be disappointed if Pence didn’t send the disputed votes back to the states.

Trump tweeted that his vice president “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify.”

Late Wednesday, Twitter locked the president out of his account.

After 11 p.m., the Senate voted 96-3 to defeat the objection to certifying Arizona’s electors.

3. McConnell: Congress Has a Limited Role

Before the lockdown of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke about the gravity of the debate, and why he opposed objections to the Electoral College outcome. 

“I’ve served 36 years in the Senate,” McConnell said. “This will be the most important vote I’ve ever cast.”

McConnell at times has had a complicated relationship with Trump, but mostly has been an ally. However, he addressed  Biden as “President-Elect” after the Electoral College vote Dec. 14. 

Immediately after the Nov. 3 election, McConnell had defended Trump’s right to contest the results because of evidence of fraud and irregularities. 

“I supported the president’s right to use the legal system. Dozens of lawsuits received hearings in courtrooms all across our country,” McConnell said Wednesday, adding:

But over and over, the courts rejected these claims, including all-star judges who the president himself has nominated.

Last year’s bizarre pandemic voting procedures must not become the new norm. But, my colleagues, nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale–massive scale–that would tip the entire election. Nor can public doubt alone justify a radical break when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence.

The Senate majority leader also noted that the presidential elections of 1976, 2000, and 2004 were considerably closer than 2020, and that the Electoral College vote spread this time was almost identical to that of 2016, when Trump won. 

“The Constitution gives us here in Congress a limited role. We cannot simply declare ourselves a national board of elections on steroids,” McConnell said. “The voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken. If we overrule them it will damage our republic forever.” 

McConnell said the challenges brought by fellow Republican lawmakers endangered the Electoral College:

If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again. Every four years would be a scramble for power at any cost. The Electoral College, [which] most of us on this side have been defending for years, would cease to exist, leaving many of our states with no say on how to choose a president. The effects would go beyond the election itself.

McConnell reminded Democrats that they repeatedly made similar objections when Republicans won presidential elections:

After 2000, after 2004, after 2016. After 2004, a Democratic senator joined and forced the same debate and believe it or not, Democrats like Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Hillary Clinton praised and applauded the stunt. Republicans condemned those baseless efforts back then and we just spent four years condemning Democrats’ shameful attacks on the validity of President Trump’s own election. …

The framers built the Senate to stop short-term passions from boiling over and melting the foundations of our republic.

4. Cruz Offers ‘Door Number 3’

Also before the rioters breached the Capitol, Cruz made the case for naming an Electoral Commission as a “credible, impartial body to hear the evidence” as part of an emergency 10-day audit of six disputed states. 

Cruz noted a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that found 39% of Americans described the 2020 election as rigged. That included 17% of Democrats and 31% of independent voters. 

“Even if you do not share that conviction, it is the responsibility, I believe, of this office to acknowledge that this is a profound threat to this country and to the legitimacy of any administration that will come in the future,” Cruz said. 

“What does it say to the nearly half the country that believes this election was rigged if we vote not even to consider the claims of illegality and fraud in this election?” he said. “I believe there is a better way.”

The Texas Republican argued that a brief investigation would be “door number three” for lawmakers who neither wanted to overturn the election result nor ignore concerns about voter fraud.  

“I am not arguing for setting aside the result of this election. All of us are faced with two choices, both of which are lousy,” Cruz said, adding: 

One choice is to vote against the objections. Tens of millions of Americans will see a vote against the objections as a statement that voter fraud doesn’t matter, isn’t real, shouldn’t be taken seriously. A great many of us don’t believe that. 

On the other hand, most if not all of us do not believe we should set aside the results of an election just because our candidate may not have prevailed. So we endeavour to look to door number three–a third option. For that I look to history, to the precedent of the 1876 election.

After the 1876 presidential election, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission to decide the dispute between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. 

The panel was made up of five House members, five senators, and five Supreme Court justices. The commission decided four disputed states–South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon–in favor of Hayes. 

“For those on the Democratic side that say there is no evidence, they’ve been rejected [in the courts], then you should rest in comfort if that is the case–an electoral commission would reject those claims,” Cruz said. “For those simply telling voters, ‘Go jump in a lake, you have concerns that are of no moment to us,’ [that] jeopardizes I believe the legitimacy of this and subsequent elections. The Constitution gives to Congress the responsibility of this day to count the voters.”

5. Going Into Emergency Recess

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., was speaking on the Senate floor in favor of the 10-day audit of the election results when protesters began to breach the building. 

“I’ve had some colleagues who say a 10-day commission is not enough time,” Lankford said. “So they have counterproposed just ignoring the lingering questions. We need to do something. My challenge today is not about the good people of Arizona.”

At that point, Senate President Pro Tempore Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pounded the gavel and interrupted Lankford’s speech to say the Senate was going into recess. 

Someone who appeared to be a staffer told Lankford: “Protesters are in the building. It wasn’t anything you said.”

Grassley began presiding as Pence reportedly was rushed out of the Senate chamber. Pence never left the building, authorities said later.

Arizona’s Gossar was speaking in the House chamber in favor of the objection to his state’s electoral count when the House similarly went into recess. Pelosi also was rushed out. 

Some protesters had broken into the Capitol and overwhelmed Capitol Police. Police fired flash-bang grenades and canisters believed to contain tear gas. 

Trump soon tweeted: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”

After the Senate returned to session Wednesday night, Lankford resumed speaking. He said election questions should be addressed, but that he understood a commission couldn’t happen at this point. 

6. Pearl Harbor, 1812, and Fall of Roman Republic

Democrats compared the events of the day to two dark times for the United States and one dark era for Rome. 

“President Franklin Roosevelt set aside Dec. 7, 1941, as a day that will live in infamy. Unfortunately, we can now add Jan. 6, 2021, to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor. “This temple to democracy was desecrated.”

Schumer laid the blame on Trump. 

“This will be a stain on our country not so easily washed away,” Schumer said. “The final, terrible, indelible legacy of the 45th president of the United States, undoubtedly our worst.”

With regard to some lawmakers’ objections to certifying electoral votes in the three disputed states, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said their actions contrast with the Senate’s passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to end Jim Crow laws discriminating against blacks in the South. 

“What we’ll be saying, really what we’ll be doing, is as the body that acted together to guarantee Americans the right to vote, we will become the agent of one of the most massive disenfranchisement in the history of this country,” Kaine said. “So I urge all of my colleagues, please oppose these objections.” 

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., talked about the last time the Capitol was invaded, saying it was similar to the violence Wednesday. 

“I can only think of two times in history that individuals laid siege to our Capitol, stormed our sacred civic spaces, and tried to overrun this government. It was the War of 1812. The other one was today,” Booker said, adding:

What’s interesting about the parallel between the two is they both were waving the flags to a sole sovereign, to an individual, surrendering democratic principles to the cult of personality. One was a monarch of England. The other, with the flags I saw flying all over our Capitol, including in the hallways and in this room, to a single person named Donald Trump.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., made a comparison to the fall of the Roman republic. 

“As we saw the mob riot in Washington, D.C., I was thinking about what the founders were thinking about when they wrote our Constitution, in what happened to the Roman republic when armed gangs doing the work of politicians prevented Rome from casting their ballots for consul, for senators,” Bennet said. “These armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome, keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from ever being called. In the end, because of that, the Roman republic fell and a dictator took its place. That was the end of the Roman republic.”

7. Evolution of Objections

Objections to certain Electoral College votes that were set to prompt debate seemed to fizzle after the mob entered the Capitol. Both houses convened separately to continue the debate initiated by the earlier objection, but most of the discussion went elsewhere. 

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who lost her election runoff by a narrow margin the night before, previously had announced she would support a challenge to the election results. 

“When I arrived in Washington this morning I fully intended to object to the certification of the electoral votes,” Loeffler said on the Senate floor. “However, the events that have transpired today have forced me to reconsider. I cannot now in good conscience object to the certification of these electors. The violence, the lawlessness, and the siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on the very institution my objection was intended to protect.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a constitutional law expert, argued that while he saw legitimate concerns about election irregularities, states hadn’t offered any alternative set of electors.

Lee said he had listened to the Trump campaign’s lawyers and talked to state officials. He determined the complaints don’t represent how the federal system is supposed to work.

“The Constitution makes very clear under Article II, Section I that the states will appoint presidential electors according to procedures that their legislatures developed,” Lee said, adding:

Then comes the 12th Amendment. It explains what we’re doing here today in the Capitol. It explains that the president of the Senate–the vice president of the United States–shall open the ballots and the votes shall then be counted. It’s those words that can define and constrain every scrap of authority we have in this process. Our job is to open, then count. Open, then count. That’s it. That’s all there is.

In the House, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., the first to lead support for objections to some electoral votes, talked about the votes of illegal immigrants tainting the election outcome. 

“During the second presidential debate, Joe Biden publicly solicited the illegal alien bloc vote by promising, ‘Within 100 days, I’m going to send to the United States Congress a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Madam Speaker, that is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for an illegal alien,” Brooks said. “Joe Biden knew exactly what he was doing by seeking the illegal alien bloc vote.”

Brooks noted that Biden, as a longtime senator, blocked measures to require proof of citizenship in registering to vote. 

“The evidence is irrefutable. Noncitizens overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden in exchange for the promised amnesty and citizenship and in so doing, helped steal the election from Donald Trump, Republican candidates, and American citizens across America,” Brooks said. 

He talked about related election security problems in states with suspicious election results.  

“In my judgment, if only lawful votes cast by eligible American citizens are counted, Joe Biden lost and President Trump won the Electoral College,” Brooks said. “As such, it is my constitutional duty to promote honest and accurate elections by rejecting Electoral College vote submissions from states whose electoral systems are so badly flawed as to render their vote submissions unreliable, untrustworthy, and unworthy of acceptance.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the first senator to support objections to the Electoral College vote brought up by the House, stressed that political differences must be worked out by peaceful means. 

But, Hawley said, many unresolved election issues remain, particularly with Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes:

In Pennsylvania, quite apart from allegations of any fraud, you have a state Constitution that has been interpreted for a century to say that there is no mail-in balloting permitted except in very narrow circumstances that’s also provided for in the law. And yet, last year, Pennsylvania elected officials passed a whole new law that allows universal mail-in balloting and did it irregardless of what the Pennsylvania Constitution said. 

And then when a Pennsylvania citizen tried to go and be heard on this subject before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, they were dismissed on the grounds of procedure, timeliness, and violation of that Supreme Court’s own precedent. So the merits of the case have never been heard. The constitutionality of the statute has never been defended. 

I am not aware of any court that has passed on its constitutionality. I actually am not aware of anybody that has defended the constitutionality. This is a statute that governed this last election in which there were over 2.5 million mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. This is my point, that this is the forum.

Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.

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