Calmes: Congress is trying to stop its own members from another coup attempt

Call it the (spineless) Republican lament: “The things we do for the orange Jesus.”

Those were the words a House Republican muttered on Jan. 6, 2021, according to Rep. Liz Cheney, as he joined fellow Trump cranks in a party dressing room to sign official objections to Joe Biden’s electoral votes from key states. Those objections were exactly what then-President Trump and a growing mob outside the Capitol were demanding.

Cheney watched her colleague and thought, “You know, you’re acting unconstitutionally.” She narrated the episode Monday to an audience at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, appropriately celebrating Constitution Day.

The MAGAmatons in Congress are still in on it, of course, blindly following Trump’s wishes, even as their orange Jesus lament speaks of the contempt so many have for the loser of 2020.

Spotted portrait illustration of Jackie Calmes

opinion columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes takes a critical look at the national political scene. She has decades of experience reporting on the White House and Congress.

On Wednesday – nearly two years after they approved or even colluded with Trump’s coup attempt and then ran for their lives – nearly all House Republicans voted against a bill designed to prevent another such uprising after the 2024 election.

The measure passed 229-203 in the Democrat-controlled House with the support of just nine Republicans, including Cheney — all lame ducks whose careers in Congress were ended by primary election losses or decisions to step down in the face of MAGA voters Anger at not being able to bow fully to Trump.

This bill is BFD, as then-Vice President Biden famously said of other landmark legislation.

It would change the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act, which Trump conspirators misconstrued to let Congress overturn Biden’s victory. The changes would clarify what had been understood for more than a century, until Trump: A Vice President (say, Mike Pence on January 6, 2021) presides solely over Congress certifying state electoral votes; he or she has no authority under the law or the 12th Amendment to change those votes.

Also, the House bill would raise the threshold number of lawmakers who must appeal a state’s votes before Congress considers the issue — from a single House and Senate member to a third of each chamber. The bill would limit the grounds for objection. And a majority of the House and Senate would have to agree to the objections.

Just two weeks ago, former federal judge J. Michael Luttig, a prominent Conservative who has advised members of the House and Senate on the issue, all but abandoned bipartisan negotiations to establish the 1887 Act. Then, on Monday, Cheney and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, both members of the House-elect committee investigating January 6, 2021, introduced their bill.

It is extremely rare for a non-emergency bill to be in the House one day and passed two days later. But as Luttig says, the election counting law needs to be changed is an emergency. Trump and his allies remain “a clear and present threat,” Luttig told me. They “will try again to overturn an election that doesn’t go their way.”

Cheney and Lofgren agree. They wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week that the continued lies by Trump and his supporters — including Republican candidates for Congress and for state and local offices responsible for elections — “did the prospect of another attempt at a stealing the presidential election, perhaps with yet another attempt to corrupt the process by which Congress counts the election.”

News of the sudden passage of her bill through Parliament and improved prospects for a Senate version have attracted little attention. After all, it’s hard to break through in the midst of the recent bombings about one or two of Trump’s alleged transgressions — financial fraud in New York real estate, the apparent theft of state secrets in Mar-a-Lago and the post-election 2020 tampering with voting machines recorded by his supporters.

On Thursday, the sponsors of the separate Senate bill amending the Electoral Count Act secured their key 10th Republican co-sponsor: Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, who is retiring. With all 50 Democratic senators supporting the bill, there are now the 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster and pass the bill.

Even so, senators and members of the House of Representatives must reconcile differences in their respective bills. The Senate version is less stringent, with looser grounds for objecting to state electoral votes and requiring fewer objections—one-fifth in each chamber instead of one-third. The goal is to negotiate the final language in time for a vote in the lame duck session of Congress after November’s midterm elections.

“It would be an inexplicable and inexcusable disappointment for the country if Congress didn’t pass some version of what’s on the table, Luttig said — to “ensure there will never be another January 6th.”

In these polarized times, there was a beautiful moment after the House vote when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) descended the podium and crossed the well of the Chamber, where Cheney, now a pariah in her own party, joined Lofgren and Lofgren several other Democrats had spoken. The liberal Pelosi shook hands warmly with the very conservative Cheney.

Unfortunately, even assuming a happy ending for a revised election counting law, that is not the bottom line of this legislative saga. What is striking instead is that Congress failed to achieve unanimity in both houses when it tried to rewrite a poorly drafted 19th-century law that was at the center of a bloody attack on its own corridors and possibly their lives.

As Luttig said to me, “The Republican Party will not act against Trump to this day.”

That its members are so dazzled by orange should make the rest of us see red.

@jackiekcalmes Calmes: Congress is trying to stop its own members from another coup attempt

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