A bipartisan bill to prevent future interference in certifying election results that Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., helped craft got a major boost this week when the legislation cleared a committee vote and secured more support from Senate leaders.
The Senate proposal to overcome the century-old Electoral Count Act still faces hurdles, including reconciling its differences with the House version and acting quickly on the legislation when Congress returns from recess after the November elections.
Murphy is one of 16 senators who worked together for months to craft compromise legislation that could realistically pass a divided Senate. He has said his main priority in updating the law is to “guard against bad state actors who throw out our election results.” Murphy fears attempts to overturn the election in 2024 will be more “organized” and “sophisticated” than in 2020.
[RELATED: Fearing 2024 election threats, Murphy helped craft bipartisan bill to avert Jan. 6 repeat]
The Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022 seeks to make it more difficult to challenge electors by raising the threshold to object, establishes an “expedited judicial review” to deal with candidate legal challenges and clarifies that the vice president’s role is merely ceremonial in overseeing Congress’ certification process. It currently only takes one member in each chamber to raise an objection.
The effort, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, highlights another rare instance of bipartisan compromise. Democrats were repeatedly unsuccessful in passing wide-ranging voting rights legislation but found consensus with Republicans over a much narrower scope that makes modest changes to the 1887 law.
Since its release in July, support for the bill has grown to include 11 Republican and 11 Democratic co-sponsors, which is enough for the bill to clear the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters. If all Democrats support it, they need at least 10 Republicans on board to move the legislation forward in a split 50-50 Senate.
But reform proponents secured their most high-profile GOP supporter when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would vote for the bill as long as no major changes are made. His stamp of approval could further increase the number of Republicans who back it.
The Electoral Count Reform Act easily passed its first test on Tuesday when the Senate Rules and Administration Committee approved the bill in a 14-1 vote. It included an amendment with small tweaks that brought it more in alignment with the House bill. One change included adding more specific language that “only true unforeseen emergencies qualify as extraordinary and catastrophic events to allow states to extend voting in a presidential election.”
“We have an opportunity to take strong bipartisan action to protect the cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power,” said Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., adding she will work with “both chambers of Congress to pass these reforms into law by the end of the year so that nothing like the chaos of Jan. 6 ever happens again.”
Only two Republican senators who sit on the Rules Committee objected to the results of at least one state’s results hours after rioters breached the Capitol on Jan. 6. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., voted for the bill, while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was the only member to oppose it.
Cruz claimed that the legislation is “bad for democracy” and accused Democrats of hypocrisy, pointing to past efforts in their party to object to results.
“I understand why Democrats are supporting this bill,” Cruz said, arguing that the bill is all about Trump. “What I don’t understand is why Republicans are.”
The path forward for the Senate bill, however, is still unclear as Congress gets ready to depart for a long recess after passing a short-term government funding bill by the end of the week.
The Senate and House versions only have a few differences, including on the thresholds to object to a state’s electors. In the House bill, it would take one-third of members in both chambers to challenge certification. The Senate legislation requires one-fifth of all members.
But the House bill, introduced by two members on the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, has little support from Republicans in either chamber. The proposal passed last week but got only nine GOP votes all from retiring members. Republicans argued they should have had more input and took issue with the involvement of outspoken Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
While Senate Republicans are rallying behind the bipartisan bill, they emphasized that they will only back that version. That could add complications to smoothing out the differences between the two that will keep both GOP senators and House Democrats happy.
“It’s clear that only a bipartisan compromise originating in the Senate can actually become law,” McConnell said at the hearing. “One party going it alone would be a non-starter, and in my view, the House bill is a non-starter.”
Both Klobuchar and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Rules Committee, are talking with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the other Jan. 6 committee member involved in the House bill. But they argue that they go into the process “from a position of strength” because of bipartisan buy-in. Any votes, however, are not expected to happen until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections and before a new Congress comes in early next year.
“My hope is that we’ll be able to reconcile the two bills pretty fast,” Murphy said in a recent interview. “It feels like a lame-duck project. It’s harder to pass things in the Senate than the House.”
Blunt indicated that it is more likely that the Senate will send its legislation to the House for a vote rather than the other way around. But the timing of it all is still up in the air.
“Most likely I believe it’ll go after the election,” Klobuchar said. “But it must be done, and this is our main message today — it must be done by the end of the year.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.