Democrats’ dilemma: How to get Jan. 6 recommendations through Congress

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) speaks to reporters about the Jan. 6 committee following the final votes of the week on Friday, September 30, 2022.

House Democratic leaders will face heavy political pressure — and a tight time crunch — to vote this year on election reform recommendations soon to arrive from lawmakers investigating last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

The Jan. 6 select committee is charged with proposing improvements to the nation’s election system in an effort to reinforce the peaceful transfer of power, which came under threat by a pro-Trump mob after his 2020 defeat. The recommendations are expected to arrive after the Nov. 8 midterm elections, as part of the panel’s final report on its findings.

That will leave Democratic leaders with a short window to draft legislation, rally support and send the reforms to the Senate — all in a lame-duck session when they’ll also face a crucial deadline to extend federal funding and prevent a government shutdown. 

Complicating their task, the House is widely expected to change hands next year, shifting all the legislative decisions to Republican leaders who, in defense of former President Trump, have condemned the select committee from its inception and are certain to ignore any recommendations the panel proposes.

As Congress left Washington last week for the long election recess, the combination of factors was already stirring a sense of urgency from rank-and-file Democrats, who want their leaders to prioritize the panel’s recommendations at year’s end, before they’re buried by a potential GOP takeover.   

“I don’t know what their thought process is. But whatever it is, we actually need to get it done,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “Because if the House flips, which I don’t think it will, but if it does, Kevin McCarthy’s not going to do anything to protect this country.” 

The House is scheduled to be in session for 17 days during the lame-duck period, now scheduled to end on Dec. 15. The year-end calendar is notoriously fluid, as leaders are frequently forced to keep lawmakers in Washington to finalize must-pass legislation. This year, the must-pass bill is a nascent package to extend government funding, which would otherwise expire at the end of Dec. 16. 

Some Democrats said the lame-duck window allows plenty of time to consider the select committee election proposals — and even win the Senate support needed to enact them into law. 

“We have two months. What? Is there anything more important than making sure we defend our democracy?” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Calif.). “We have no option, in my view, other than to act swiftly as soon as those recommendations are reported. We have to get this done before we adjourn.”

Others voiced heavy doubts that Senate Democrats could find enough Republican support to overcome a GOP filibuster. 

“I would think that [House] leadership would want to vote on them, since the committee’s done such great work,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee. 

But Senate passage? “I can’t imagine,” he said.

Members of the Jan. 6 committee, meanwhile, said it remains unclear if their recommendations will be considered at all in November or December.  

“We don’t know,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “Maybe some of them.”

A failure to send election reforms to President Biden’s desk would be a huge disappointment to Democrats, voting rights groups and other good-government activists, particularly with Trump eyeing another run at the White House in 2024. Still, passing the reforms through the House would also provide Democrats with ammunition to criticize Republicans for opposing efforts to bolster democratic institutions, even after the threat of Jan. 6, 2021. 

Congress is already moving on one piece of the reform effort, the Electoral Count Act, which increases the lawmaker threshold needed to challenge state election results and clarifies that the vice president’s role in formalizing those results is merely ceremonial. Different versions of the bill have already been passed by both the House and Senate, and the chambers are hoping to iron out the distinctions during the lame-duck session. 

Investigators have also hinted at proposals to stiffen the criminal code to punish presidents who pressure other factions of government, like state election offices and the Justice Department — two prongs of Trump’s effort to remain in power after his defeat. 

Outside of the committee, there’s been a push to adopt a resolution that leans on the 14th Amendment to disqualify presidents who actively seek to subvert elections. 

And Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) indicated last week that he wants to clarify elements of the 25th Amendment, which seeks to guarantee a continuity of governance in the event a president becomes incapacitated. 

In the days after the Jan. 6 attack, several members of Trump’s cabinet had weighed whether to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Raskin, an expert in constitutional law, said that, as written, “It’s not even clear whether they could have or not.”

“There are a lot of provisions in the 25th Amendment that need to be clarified,” Raskin told reporters Friday outside the Capitol.   

The ultimate fate of the reform recommendations could hinge on the timing of the committee’s final report, which will contain them. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has said there will be an interim report issued before November, with the final report to come afterwards. But when it will arrive remains unclear. 

Given the limited calendar of the lame-duck session, some lawmakers are hoping it arrives quickly after the House returns to Washington on Nov. 14. 

“I hope they give us time, and I hope we act on it,” said a Democrat who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive topic. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said the midterm results will be a key factor in installing some urgency to the process. 

“The lame duck is actually the last chance to enact these reforms,” he said, “because Republicans may not be as disposed to voting for them.”

Tags Bennie Thompson David Cicilline Donald Trump Jamie Raskin Jan. 6 attack Jan. 6 panel John Yarmuth Nancy Pelosi

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