Sat, October 16, 2021

in-focus

Congress back to confirmation after chaos


WASHINGTON - Congress returned to work late Wednesday to complete the process of tallying the electoral college votes and confirming President-elect Joe Biden's win, hours after the ceremony was halted by an unprecedented breach of the Capitol by storming supporters of President Donald Trump.

In a show of defiance and resolve, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had consulted with House leaders, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and Vice President Mike Pence before concluding that Congress should move ahead with the ceremony interrupted earlier in the day by rioters provoked to action by Trump at a morning rally.

"Today, a shameful assault was made on our democracy. It was anointed at the highest level of government. It cannot, however, deter us from our responsibility to validate the election of Joe Biden," wrote Pelosi , D-Calif.

As he reopened the Senate chamber, Pence decried "the dark day in the history of the United States Capitol."

"To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. This is still the people's house," Pence said.

"They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed," Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., added.

The ceremonial reading of the electoral votes had only just begun when pro-Trump rioters rushed the building, forcing the evacuation of both chambers of Congress. For hours, rioters rampaged through the Capitol complex. One woman was fatally shot in the building.

Only after the D.C. National Guard had been activated and political leaders in both parties condemned the rioting and appealed for calm did authorities declare the Capitol was secure.

The day had always been expected to be a historic test of the democratic system, with dozens of Republicans attempting for the first time to use Congress's previously ceremonial role to try to overturn the results of a popular vote. The process was already underway when Jon Ossoff was declared the winner of one of two Senate runoffs in Georgia on Tuesday, handing control of the upper chamber to the Democrats.

Still, the outcome of the congressional proceedings had been clear from the start, particularly after Pence announced he would reject pleas from the president to use his role as the session's presiding officer to hand a win to Trump.

McConnell, who also had said little publicly about the process before Wednesday, likewise delivered a stirring opening floor speech imploring his colleagues not to damage democracy by objecting to the votes.

"Voters, the courts, and the states have all spoken - they've all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever," he said. 

The tense day turned to horror when pro-Trump rioters, stirred up at a rally where the president called for them to march on the Capitol, stormed the building, causing the proceedings to be halted for hours and the chambers to be evacuated. A woman died after being shot during the melee.

The violence shocked leaders in both parties. While lawmakers huddled in an undisclosed location during the siege, Republican leaders pressed their members to abandon their plans to challenge the electoral vote. A least one Republican House member who had planned to object later said she had changed her mind and would vote to confirm Biden's votes. 

"I encourage Donald Trump to condemn and put an end to this madness," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

Democrats and some outside groups began calling Wednesday for Trump to be either quickly impeached by Congress or removed from office via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which guides the handling of an incapacitated president, in an effort to lessen his ability to incite more violence.

Several hours after his supporters had broken into the Capitol, Trump tweeted and released a video calling on them to respect law enforcement. But he also repeated lies about the election being stolen from him.

Late in the day, he tweeted that "these are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots." The tweet was quickly removed by Twitter, which also for the first time announced Trump's account would be locked until he deleted the tweet and then for 12 hours. 

The congressional process was supposed to be a mere ceremonial checkpoint on the way to Biden's oath-taking later this month. Biden won the popular vote on Nov. 3 and, last month, the electoral college met in each state capital, as stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. Biden won 306 electoral votes, to Trump's 232.

All that was left before the Inauguration later this month was for a joint session of Congress to gather Wednesday and read those votes aloud.

According to an 1887 law that governs the process, any member of the House of Representatives, joined by a senator, can object, prompting a two hour debate, followed by a vote of each chamber. A majority of both the House and Senate would have had to back a challenge for any to prevail, and Trump's supporters did not have the votes.

Dozens of Republicans in the House, joined by 13 GOP Senators, had said they intended to object to slates of electors from several swing states that had backed Biden. They cited as their reason baseless allegations of fraud fanned by Trump, and the resulting belief among many Republicans that the election was compromised.

For days leading up to Wednesday, Trump had also pressed Pence, who the Constitution requires to preside over the ceremony, to refuse to recognize electoral college slates from swing states that backed Biden.

"All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN," Trump tweeted overnight hours before the ceremony began. "Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!"

Shortly before he took the gavel, however, Pence released a three-page letter he had written to members of Congress, rejecting Trump's pleas. 

"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," he wrote.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Pence's decision caused Trump to rage all afternoon even as the crowds were breaking into the Capitol, telling aides that Pence had betrayed him. 

Pence said he would merely preside over the reading of tallies that had been forwarded by the states. And then he opened the session, beginning alphabetically with the reading of votes from Alabama and Alaska, both of which backed Trump.

When Biden's votes from Arizona were read aloud, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., joined Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to object. Dozens of Republicans rose and gave the two a hearty round of applause.

At that point, the House and Senate retreated to their respective chambers to debate the challenge, with Pence presiding over the Senate and Pelosi overseeing the House.

For nearly 30 minutes, the process ran largely as expected. McConnell - in the final days of leading the Senate chamber until Democrats take control as a result of their victories in the two Senate races in Georgia on Tuesday - gave an impassioned plea as to why Republicans should not heed Trump's call to object to the results.

"I've served 36 years in the Senate - this will be the most important vote I've ever cast," McConnell said, his voice breaking at times as he spoke.

"If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral," he said.

Cruz insisted he was seeking only a 10-day audit of the results and not necessarily to overturn the election, urging that they agree to establish a "credible and fair tribunal" to consider the allegations of fraud that have been advanced. 

His remarks ignored that more than 90 state and federal judges, including jurists appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, have considered and rejected claims of fraud or other irregularities since the election.

In the House, several GOP speakers opened by objecting to voting procedures adopted by states in response to the coronavirus pandemic. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) argued that "the constitutional process was not followed" in a number of states.

And he talked about how over a hundred House Republicans had joined a lawsuit filed by Texas last month, seeking to get the Supreme Court to throw out the results of four states. The court declined to hear the case. Scalise complained the court's decision had been a "punt."

But before debate in either chamber could get truly rolling, protesters - who had been attending a rally where Trump spoke and urged them to march on the Capitol - broke into the building and stormed the chambers, causing both the House and Senate to recess.

As chaos erupted and Pence and Pelosi were hustled to secure locations, Republican Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mike Rounds of South Dakota helped the parliamentarians grab the election certificates and take them to the secure location.

Constitutional experts said nothing in the law prevented Congress from picking up the ceremony where it left off. Even if for some reason they were unable to complete that process by Jan. 20, the Constitution is clear: The president's term ends at noon on that day.

"The idea that individuals were allowed to derail one of our most solemn sacred constitutional processes is horrifying. But this is only going to delay for a bit the completion of the process," said Rick Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University School of Law. "If Congress needs one day, two days or 10 days, they have that time, plenty have time, to complete the process."

According to the Constitution, the president and vice president's terms will end on Jan. 20. If for some reason Congress were not able to confirm the electoral college vote between now and then, Pelosi would become "acting president."

"What we absolutely know is that at noon on Jan. 20, the current term of both President Trump and Vice President Pence end," said Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University.

Published : January 07, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Rosalind S. Helderman, Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey · NATIONAL, POLITICS, COURTSLAW, CONGRESS