The House has passed legislation to overhaul the rules for certifying the results of a presidential election as lawmakers accelerate their response to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and Donald Trump's failed attempt to remain in power.
The bill, which is similar to bipartisan legislation moving through the Senate, would overhaul an arcane 1800s-era statute known as the Electoral Count Act that governs, along with the U.S. Constitution, how states and Congress certify electors and declare presidential election winners.
While that process has long been routine and ceremonial, Trump and a group of his aides and lawyers unsuccessfully tried to exploit loopholes in the law in an attempt to overturn his defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Democrats are pushing to pass the bill before the end of the year and ahead of the 2024 election cycle as Trump is considering another run.
While at least 10 GOP senators have signed on to the Senate version, the House vote fell mostly along party lines. House Republicans — most of whom are still aligned with Trump — argued that the legislation shouldn't be a priority and that it is a political vehicle for Democrats ahead of November's midterm elections. The final vote was 229-203.
The legislation would set new parameters around the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress that happens every four years after a presidential election. The day turned violent last year after hundreds of Trump's supporters interrupted the proceedings, broke into the building and threatened the lives of then-Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress. The rioters echoed Trump's false claims of widespread fraud and wanted Pence to block Biden's victory as he presided over the joint session.
The legislation intends to ensure that future Jan. 6 sessions are "as the constitution envisioned, a ministerial day," said Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican who co-sponsored the legislation with House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. Both Cheney and Lofgren are also members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the legislation is necessary as there have been attempts in states across the country to change election laws to make it easier to nullify future results.
"Now we have a solemn duty to ensure that future efforts to undermine our elections cannot succeed," Pelosi said.
The bill would clarify in the law that the vice president's role presiding over the count is only ceremonial and that he or she cannot change the results. It also sets out that each state can only send one certified set of electors after Trump's allies had unsuccessfully tried to put together alternate slates of illegitimate pro-Trump electors in swing states where Biden won.
"This bill will make it harder to convince people that they have the right to overthrow an election," Lofgren said.
The legislation would increase the threshold for individual lawmakers' objections to any state's electoral votes, requiring a third of the House and a third of the Senate to object to trigger votes on the results in both chambers. Currently, only one lawmaker in the House and one lawmaker in the Senate has to object. The House bill would set out very narrow grounds for those objections, an attempt to thwart baseless or politically motivated challenges.
In addition, the bill would require courts to get involved if state or local officials want to delay a presidential vote or refuse to certify the results.
The House vote comes as the Senate is moving on a similar track with enough Republican support to virtually ensure passage before the end of the year. After months of talks, House Democrats introduced their legislation Monday and held the quick vote two days later in order to send the bill across the Capitol and start to resolve differences. A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation this summer and a Senate committee is expected to vote on it next week.
While the House bill is more expansive than the Senate version, the two bills cover similar ground and members in both chambers are optimistic that they can work out the differences. And despite the party-line vote in the House, supporters are encouraged by the bipartisan effort in the Senate.
Both sides have an incentive to want a set of clear rules, and this is an antiquated law that no one understands," said Benjamin Ginsburg, a longtime GOP lawyer who consulted with lawmakers as they wrote the bill. "All parties benefit from clarity."
House GOP leaders encouraged their members to vote against the legislation. They said the involvement of courts could drag out elections and said the bill would take rights away from states.
The bill is an "attempt to federalize our elections," Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., said on the House floor. He argued that voters are more focused on the economy and other issues than elections law.
"In my area of Pennsylvania, nobody is talking about this," Reschenthaler said.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, Lofgren's GOP counterpart on the House Administration Committee, said Democrats are "desperately trying to talk about their favorite topic, and that is former President Donald Trump."
Democrats said the bill was not only a response to Trump, but also a way to prevent objections and mischief from all candidates in the future.
"If you think that this legislation is an attack on President Trump, you simply haven't read the legislation because there's nothing in there attacking President Trump," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., another member of the Jan. 6 panel. "This is about reforming the Electoral Count Act so it works for the American people."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., was blunter. He criticized Republicans who have defended Trump's actions that day and who have downplayed the seriousness of the former president's attempts to overturn the results of the election.
Hoyer called the Republican opposition a "rationalization of what I believe is treason. ... It was rationalized then, and sadly it is being rationalized now."