Trump, hurdles loom for Senate election reform talks

Former President Trump’s criticism of efforts to change an arcane election law are adding new urgency — and uncertainty — into bipartisan negotiations in the Senate.

Trump isn’t the only potential hurdle looming on the horizon for hopes of a deal on changing the Electoral Count Act, a 135-year-old law that lays out how the Electoral College results are counted. In addition to the bipartisan talks, a group of Democrats unveiled a “discussion draft” of their own proposal and senators are already mulling potential things they would want to add into any deal.

But Trump’s decision to revive his criticism of former Vice President Mike Pence over his refusal to unilaterally throw out election results in states Trump lost, while also flirting with a 2024 run, is putting him at odds with the Senate negotiations.

“The statements that President Trump put out on the Electoral Count Act only underscores the need for us to remove any ambiguity that exists in the act, which is poorly drafted and has not been revised since it was passed in 1887,” said GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who was mocked by Trump as “Wacky Susan Collins.”

The bipartisan group, led by Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), is still in its early stages after setting up five subgroups that would develop pieces of a proposal: Reforming the 1887 Electoral Count Act; protecting election workers; voting practices and rights; the election assistance commission; and presidential transitions.

But their work collided with Trump after he lashed out at Collins, who said during an ABC News interview that it was “very unlikely” she would support Trump in 2024 if he runs. Trump also claimed in multiple statements that the ongoing discussions about changes to the 1887 law aligned with his belief that Pence “could have sent the votes back to various legislators for reassessment after so much fraud and irregularities were found” — an argument rejected by many GOP senators.

Asked about Trump, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another member of the GOP, suggested they were staying focused on the task at hand, rather than getting pulled into larger potential ramifications.

“I think we’re all focused on January the 6th. We’re looking at a bill that is fundamentally flawed. … I think people are focused on that goal, solely,” he said.

The group is discussing codifying that the vice president’s role in Congress’s formal counting of the Electoral College votes is ceremonial, after Trump led a pressure campaign to try to get Pence to act unilaterally. They are also looking at increasing the number of lawmakers that must sign on to an objection before they can force a vote in both the House and Senate.

Currently it only takes one member of the House and one member of the Senate to back an objection to a state’s results to force a vote in both chambers, where a simple majority must support upholding the challenge.

The group’s efforts go beyond the Electoral Count Act and include discussing making it a federal crime to harass poll workers or election officials and giving states grants to improve their own election systems. And Collins also said that her group is also looking at “what you do if there are duplicates, or competing would be the better word, competing slates of electors.”  

CNN reported last month that Trump campaign officials, led by Rudy Giuliani, were involved in an effort to put forward fake electors in battleground states that the former president lost during the 2020 election. 

The group’s talks have the blessing of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who reiterated this week, even amid Trump’s criticism, that he believes the Electoral Count Act needs to be changed.

“The best way to characterize how I feel about the Electoral Count Act is that it is flawed and does need to be fixed,” McConnell told reporters.

But if Trump digs in against the group’s work it could complicate the politics for Republicans, many of whom want to move past Jan. 6 and have been reluctant to cross Trump.

Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.), the first GOP senator to announce that he would challenge the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021, warned that Congress should be “very careful” in making changes.

“What the current statute provides for is debate … I would just say I would proceed with caution,” he told reporters. 

Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) pitch to his GOP colleagues for supporting changes to the Electoral Count Act is that it would effectively limit Vice President Harris, a Democrat, who will preside over Congress’s Electoral College count in January 2025.  

“I think the advantage of this moment is that the vice president is a Democrat, so hopefully Republicans recognize that clarifying the role of the vice president is in our interest as well as in the other party’s interest,” he said.

The complicated GOP politics aren’t the only hurdles for eventually getting a deal on changes to the Electoral Count Act.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) rolled out their own “discussion draft” proposal they have been working on.

King has indicated that he’s willing to work with members of the bipartisan group and the three senators said in a joint statement that they “stand ready to share the knowledge we have accumulated with our colleagues from both parties and look forward to contributing to a strong, bipartisan effort aimed at resolving this issue.”

Klobuchar and Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee, also met with members of the bipartisan group. If the Collins-Manchin group can get a deal the bill is expected to also go through the Rules Committee.

But Collins said that the bipartisan talks and the draft proposal from King-Klobuchar-Durbin are still separate efforts, though she credited Blunt and Klobuchar with being collaborative.

“They are separate. We’re looking at many of the same issues and I view it as positive that Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. Blunt came to talk to our group … about a path forward after we reach an agreement, but these issues are complex once you get into them,” Collins said.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the upper chamber, warned that the Democratic proposal was a non-starter for many GOP senators.

“That’s not going anywhere with our Republicans. …It goes way farther than what most of our members in that working group are talking about,” Thune said. “I just think that the whole purpose of having a work group is to try to get a bipartisan product and this really … steps on that.”

The focus on the Electoral Count Act comes after a Democratic push to pass a sweeping voting rights and election reform bill hit a wall in the Senate with Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) sticking with their long-held opposition to changing the legislative filibuster, a step that would be required because of GOP opposition to the legislation.

Democrats are signaling they could try to get pieces of that earlier proposal into a potential agreement on the 1887 law.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged that he could be unsuccessful but said that he hoped if there was an election deal that he would be able get votes on amendments related to campaign finance reform and re-establishing parts of the Voting Rights Act previously gutted by the Supreme Court.

“My hope would be that there would be a robust bipartisan amendment process,” Kaine told The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that just changing the Electoral Count Act isn’t enough. 

“Reforming the Electoral College is a good thing to do, but it sure doesn’t replace the need to deal with voting rights, dark money, and reapportionment,” Schumer told reporters.

But Collins, asked if pieces of the sweeping election bill had a home in the bipartisan group’s efforts, warned against reviving the months-long fight over voting legislation.

“My goal is to have a bipartisan bill that can secure 60 or more votes in the Senate,” she said. “If we re-litigate issues that have already been rejected by the Senate, then I think it would be very difficult for us to reach the 60-vote margin.” 

Tags Amy Klobuchar Angus King Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Donald Trump Electoral Count Act Joe Manchin John Thune Josh Hawley Kyrsten Sinema Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Roy Blunt Rudy Giuliani Susan Collins Thom Tillis Tim Kaine

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