WASHINGTON - Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., announced Wednesday that he will object next week when Congress convenes to certify the electoral college vote before President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is cemented - a move that will force a contentious floor debate that top Senate Republicans had hoped to avoid.
Congress will gather next week in a joint session, where Vice President Mike Pence as the presiding officer will read aloud the results of this month’s electoral college vote confirming Biden won the November election.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly and falsely suggested that the ceremonial milestone offered a last-ditch way to reverse the election results.
By law, if any member of the House, joined by a senator, objects to the electoral college slates, both chambers must debate and then vote on the contest. But the challenge will inevitably fail because Democrats hold a majority in the House - plus a number of Senate Republicans have also recognized Biden’s win and are unlikely to sustain the challenge.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other leading Republicans had discouraged their members from challenging the process, conceding the move would ultimately fail but could drag out the process through lengthy debate and, ultimately, force their members to take an awkward vote.
Several House Republicans have said they planned to object to the vote and, Hawley became the first senator to commit to signing on. In a statement, he said he did so as a way to highlight purported election irregularities.
“At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act,” Hawley said.
More than 90 federal and state judges have now rejected challenges to the November vote, including finding allegations of fraud to be without merit.
Hawley has been mentioned as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, and his move is certain to appeal to Trump supporters and parts of the Republican base.
But other Republicans have argued that it would be politically harmful to force their members to decide whether to back Trump out of loyalty in a vote bound to fail and appear to be bucking the will of the voters. McConnell counseled against the move in a call with fellow Republicans earlier this month. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the senate’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters last week that he did not think it made sense to put the chamber through the process “when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be.”
“I mean, in the Senate, it would go down like a shot dog,” he said.
Trump has been clear about what he wants from Republicans and has repeatedly tweeted that he hopes his supporters will come to Washington to protest during the ceremony. “JANUARY SIXTH, SEE YOU IN DC!” he tweeted again on Wednesday.
Votes could be particularly difficult for GOP senators up for reelection in 2022 who have publicly said they believe Biden won the 2020 election.
If they break with Trump, they risk facing a primary challenger who could question their loyalty to the outgoing president. But supporting the challenge would mean reversing their recent stance, endorsing the disenfranchisement of millions of voters in swing states and potentially undercutting a new American president just as he prepares to take office.
A Biden spokeswoman dismissed the significance of Hawley’s plans to contest the electoral college results, saying that “the American people spoke resoundingly in this election” and that the role of Congress is “merely a formality.”
“It certainly should be treated as such,” Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said told reporters on a conference call. “Regardless of whatever antics anyone is up to on January 6, President-elect Biden will be sworn in on the 20th.”
Previously, Sen.-elect Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., had said he was considering a challenge but had not yet decided whether to move forward. Now that Hawley has committed to the challenge, Republican leaders are assuming at least some other Trump supporters in the Senate will back his objection, said a Senate GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to relay internal strategy.
A number of Republican members of the House, led by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., and encouraged by the president, have also said they plan to challenge votes in swing states.
Hawley’s move was cheered by several pro-Trump Republicans, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. “Welcome aboard, Senator,” Gaetz said in a tweet.
But it drew criticism even from some fellow Republicans who said he was more motivated by 2024 presidential politics than concerns about the 2020 election.
In a tweet, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., suggested that a positive tweet from Trump about Hawley’s move would help him with Trump supporters in 2024, even if the move goes nowhere. Hawley could then “blame someone else when it fails,” Kinzinger said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is close to McConnell, conceded to reporters Wednesday that Senate leaders had hoped to avoid the challenge. But, he added, “there’s a lot of things I don’t want to happen that happen. So you just got to learn to deal with it. And I think this is one of them.”
Hawley’s move will also increase pressure on Pence, who will preside over next week’s proceedings. On Sunday, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and several Arizona Republicans filed a lawsuit against Pence in an attempt to get a federal judge to declare the 1880s law that governs the congressional proceedings unconstitutional. They want the judge to inform Pence that, accordingly, he does not have to accept Biden’s electors, as the law would otherwise require.
The judge has ordered Pence to respond to the suit by the close of business on Thursday, a filing that will likely offer an initial indication into how Pence views his role in the process.
Hawley told reporters Wednesday that he had not yet decided whether to challenge the electoral college votes in a series of swing states or only in Pennsylvania, whose election administration he criticized in a statement. The decision could determine how much of a delay the objection injects into the process.
The Jan. 6 ceremony will take place the day after control of the chamber for the next session is determined by two runoff elections in Georgia. The results of those contests may not be known by the time of the congressional proceeding, but the voters’ preference in Georgia - and what it indicates about the political impact of Trump’s post-election conduct - could hang over the process.
Trump, who plans to campaign in Georgia before the vote next week, on Wednesday called for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to resign, escalating his criticism of a fellow Republican who has refused to intervene in the state’s presidential election or embrace Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud.
Biden defeated Trump in Georgia by about 12,000 votes, claiming the state’s 16 electoral votes in a win that was confirmed by two separate recounts. Biden was the first Democratic White House aspirant to win the state since 1992.
“@BrianKempGA should resign from office,” Trump said in a tweet. “He is an obstructionist who refuses to admit that we won Georgia, BIG!”
In another tweet, Trump also referenced a conspiracy theory alleging that the brother of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, “works for China.” In fact, Raffensberger has no brother.
Kemp told reporters Wednesday that he considered the president’s tweets a “distraction” from fighting the coronavirus pandemic and supporting Republican candidates in the runoff elections.
“I mean, I’ve supported the president,” Kemp said. “I’ve said that many times. I worked as hard as anybody in the state on his reelection up through November the 3rd. I’ve supported the legal process that him or any other campaign can go through in this state. But at the end of the day, I also have to follow the laws in the Constitution.”
Trump’s comments may have been sparked by the release of an audit of the signatures on mail-in ballots cast in Cobb County, Ga. Trump and his supporters have insisted that a further review of the signatures would reveal large numbers of fraudulently cast ballots. Instead, the secretary of state’s office announced that after reviewing more than 15,000 signatures, investigators found no instances of fraud and just two problematic ballots.
On one, a voter signed on the wrong part of the envelope. On another, a voter’s spouse signed in his place, but the voter told state officials he filled out the ballot itself.
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The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.