The split, virtually unprecedented during the ironclad tenure of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., came as the traditionally celebratory moment unfolded instead against the backdrop of a pandemic that is killing thousands of Americans each day.
It was the starkest illustration yet of the civil war that could engulf the Republican Party in the post-Trump era, as factions prepare to battle over whether the party will continue down the unorthodox, scorched-earth path forged by President Donald Trump or return to a more traditional brand of conservative politics. The bitter back-and-forth also was erupting two days before a pair of special elections in Georgia that will determine whether the GOP retains control of the Senate.
The battle was triggered by the plans of 12 senators to challenge as many as six states' electoral vote tallies at Wednesday's joint session of Congress, a usually routine procedure that this year is shaping up as the final opportunity of Trump loyalists to insist, without evidence, that Biden's win was somehow illegitimate. The chances of derailing Biden are almost nonexistent, but the event provides a stage for Republican lawmakers seeking to court Trump loyalists.
Their announced challenge was met with an impassioned response from other Republican senators, who hope the party can move beyond Trump's chaos and are frustrated that GOP members would challenge a patently legitimate election outcome. Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., said in a blistering statement that the effort "directly undermines" Americans' right to choose their leaders and would "disenfranchise millions of voters in my state and others."
"The senators justify their intent by observing that there have been many allegations of fraud," he said. "But allegations of fraud by a losing campaign cannot justify overturning an election."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the effort to challenge the results an "egregious ploy" that "dangerously threatens our Democratic Republic."
"I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world," Romney said. "Has ambition so eclipsed principle?"
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the first GOP senator to announce his intent to challenge the electoral college tally, swiped back in a letter to his colleagues late Saturday accusing Toomey and others of engaging in "shameless personal attacks" and making "unfounded claims about the intentions of our fellow Senators."
He cited what he said was skepticism among his constituents about Biden's win. "I believe it is my responsibility as a Senator to raise their concerns in the forum allowed to members of Congress," he said. "That's exactly what I intend to do."
Democrats have criticized some Republicans' practice of citing doubts by voters about the election - which they themselves helped fuel - as a reason for further investigation. Dozens of judges, including several appointed by Trump, have summarily rejected allegations that any notable fraud occurred in the election.
Dozens of Republican House members are expected to challenge the electoral tally when Congress meets in joint session on Wednesday. But the split among Senate Republicans, who are generally less fractious and chaotic, was striking, signaling what is likely to be an extended period when the GOP wrestles to define itself.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a steadfast Trump ally, also took issue with the challenge, though he was less hard-hitting than Toomey or Romney. "Proposing a commission at this late date - which has zero chance of becoming reality - is not effectively fighting for President Trump," Graham said. "It appears to be more of a political dodge than an effective remedy."
In all, it was an embarrassing spectacle for McConnell, who has for weeks urged his Republican colleagues to refrain from questioning the election at the Wednesday joint session of Congress. McConnell feared it would force many of his members into a politically difficult vote, as they would have to either defy Trump or question the results of a legitimate election.
While that is not expected to create an immediate problem for McConnell's leadership - he was re-elected GOP leader by acclamation in November - it demonstrates that Trump's departure from the White House will not mean a lessening of the intraparty tensions that made the past four years a high-wire act for Republican legislators.
A McConnell spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the turmoil late Saturday.
The chaos in the Senate, which assures a lengthy and angry debate on Wednesday and possibly into Thursday, is only one aspect of the factionalism likely to roil both parties in what will be the most closely divided Congress in memory. If Democrats win the two Georgia races, that chamber will be split 50-50, while Democrats' advantage in the House has dwindled to just a handful of seats - causing endless headaches for leaders of both parties and daunting challenges for Biden.
In the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was on Sunday won her fourth term as speaker, one that she has signaled will be the last chapter in a storied four-decade political career.
Her election was not assured, thanks to the shrinking of the Democratic majority in November's elections and the uncertainty surrounding lawmakers' attendance during the ongoing pandemic.
She will lead a razor-thin Democratic majority in the House, with Democrats controlling 222 seats to the GOP's 211, with two vacancies.
Several Democratic lawmakers defected during Sunday's vote. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine voted for Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., to serve as House speaker; Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania voted for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.; and Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey voted present.
While scores of Democratic members have used new proxy voting procedures to weigh in from afar during the past seven months, those procedures were not available for Sunday's vote - meaning lawmakers appeared in person.
The two chambers convened at noon Sunday, as prescribed in the Constitution. After the swearing-in of members, the Senate has no business to conduct until Wednesday's electoral college proceedings.
Sunday's proceedings were on a somber note, with the announcement of an unexpected vacancy due to the Tuesday death of Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, a 41-year-old Louisiana Republican who had been hospitalized with covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Letlow's seat and an upstate New York seat that remains too close to call will remain vacant Sunday.
Another three members were not expected to attend. GOP Reps.-elect David Valadao and María Elvira Salazar both said last week that they are isolating due to positive coronavirus tests, while Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who is battling cancer, is not likely to make the trip to Washington, a Democratic aide said.
Veteran lawmakers, used to the joyous pomp and circumstances of a packed House floor for their swearing in, found the safety conditions a bit jarring.
"Real different," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., first elected in 1986, after leaving the Capitol's coronavirus testing site. "I just got tested, real different. I flew back last night. First time I've been without my family. My wife's always up in the gallery."
Upton recalled past swearing-in days, including one in the early 1990s when his young son was wrapped around his shoulders and their picture made the front page of USA Today.
"It's a whole different world right now," Upton said.
That somber tone was widespread. In the House, only first-time members have been granted a ticket for a guest. Already-sitting lawmakers have been advised to come to the Capitol alone.
The selection of the new speaker - historically made with all members sitting together on the floor and lawmakers rising one at a time in alphabetical order to shout their selection - is instead being done in shifts, with 72 lawmakers called to the floor at a time.
A number of Democratic lawmakers have signaled their restlessness at Pelosi's long-term tenure, suggesting an unrest that could take hold in the Democratic House members even as she retains her hold on the speakership.
In a note to Democratic lawmakers before Sunday's speaker vote, Pelosi thanked her colleagues for confronting a challenge "as daunting and as demanding as any that previous generations of leadership have faced."
"Each of our communities has been drastically affected by the pandemic and economic crisis: 350,000 tragic deaths, over 20 million infections, millions without jobs - a toll almost beyond comprehension," she wrote.
Published : January 04, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane