Electoral College, COVID-19 challenges cloud Senate ceremonies

Ceremonial swearing-in largely avoids talk of GOP bloc's efforts to overturn the presidential election

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives to the Capitol in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Both chambers are holding rare Sunday sessions to open the new Congress on January 3 as required by the Constitution. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., arrives to the Capitol in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. Both chambers are holding rare Sunday sessions to open the new Congress on January 3 as required by the Constitution. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 3, 2021 at 4:45pm

Mask or no mask? That was the question Vice President Mike Pence found himself asking senators before the ceremonial swearing-in ceremonies for senators.

“Let's do one on and one off. That way we'll always remember what year it was,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, kicking off the line of newly elected and re-elected senators in the Old Senate Chamber on Sunday.

Tape lines on the carpet marked the socially distanced spots where Pence said he was told senators and their spouses, and family members, could stand safely without their masks on.

And even if it was hardly mentioned in the Old Senate Chamber, the upcoming debate Wednesday about the counting of Electoral Votes was on the front of mind for many senators. Objections from at least 11 Republican senators to electoral votes from several states favoring President-elect Joe Biden could lead to a very long day Wednesday.

“I told Marc Short we’re going to spend a lot of quality time together on Wednesday,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn told Pence, referring to the vice president’s chief of staff.

“I’ll be there. I’ll be there, sir,” Pence said. It is the vice president’s role to preside over the usually routine proceedings for the counting of electoral votes.

Cornyn has not been among the supporters of the effort led by Republicans, including his home state colleague Ted Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.

“We’ll get through it,” Cornyn said.

The Senate floor was open only briefly Sunday for the formal swearing-in ceremony and the adoption of the routine resolutions that are required to start a Congress, including a concurrent resolution to set up for Wednesday’s joint session to count electoral votes.

President Donald Trump, who has been continuing to push for overturning the electoral votes of several states, sent 30 nominations to the Senate that had been returned as a result of the 116th Congress expiring, including that of Chad Wolf to be secretary of Homeland Security. President-elect Joe Biden can easily withdrawn those nominations once he takes the oath of office at noon on Jan. 20.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins wanted to take a moment Sunday to acknowledge her history-making day, before addressing the effort by some of her GOP colleagues to overturn the presidential results.

“It’s not an effort that I’m going to support,” Collins said. “And right now, I’m going to go get sworn in to my fifth term, making history as the first Republican woman senator ever to be elected to a fifth term, and making Maine history by being the first Maine senator since popular election to be elected to a fifth term; so I’m gonna enjoy [that] for a bit first.”

As the proceedings were under way, 10 senators representing both parties issued a statement restating that, “the 2020 election is over.”

Republicans Collins, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah joined Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mark Warner of Virginia, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, as well as Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in a statement that ensures that any efforts to throw out electoral votes in the Senate will be futile.

“All challenges through recounts and appeals have been exhausted. At this point, further attempts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election are contrary to the clearly expressed will of the American people and only serve to undermine Americans’ confidence in the already determined election results,” the senators said. “The voters have spoken, and Congress must now fulfill its responsibility to certify the election results.”

Warner, who was sworn in for a third term representing Virginia, was among the senators noting that both the pandemic and the efforts by Trump and his allies to undermine Biden’s victory were hanging over Sunday’s proceedings.

“There was also the, not only the power of COVID, But this outrageous assault on our democracy by some of my, my colleagues. It’s more than a little bit sobering,” Warner said. “I'm mostly talking with many of my Republican friends who are part of that cabal.”

Cruz is arguing in favor of appointing an independent commission to review electoral votes ahead of Jan. 20.

“We can do it promptly," Cruz said Sunday on the Fox News Channel. "We can do it in 10 days before the inauguration, but I think we have an obligation to the voters and we have an obligation to the Constitution to ensure that this election was lawful.”

McConnell did not want to comment Sunday on the Cruz and Hawley efforts.

 “We’ll be dealing with all that on Wednesday,” he said.

It’s entirely unclear that such a commission could accomplish anything on the timeline Cruz outlined, potentially leading to a vacancy in the office of the president and an acting president, who would more than likely be Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Such questions prompted a rebuke from House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney, who circulated a memo Sunday addressed to her GOP colleagues.

“It is not reasonable to anticipate that any commission so formed could wrap up its work in 10 days; indeed, the subsequent debate at both the state and federal level would likely require months,” Cheney wrote. “Did those proposing a new
commission realize that they were in essence proposing to delay the inaugural?”

The idea of contesting electoral votes is being rejected by some of the most conservative members of the House, including Texas Republican Chip Roy, a former Cruz chief of staff. Roy was one of seven Republicans issuing a statement Sunday saying that unless states send disputed slates of electors, there is no way Congress should do anything other than count the votes on Wednesday.

“To take action otherwise — that is, to unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process — would amount to stealing power from the people and the states. It would, in effect, replace the electoral college with Congress, and in so doing strengthen the efforts of those on the left who are determined to eliminate it or render it irrelevant," said Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, Ken Buck of Colorado, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tom McClintock of California and Roy.

Cheney also criticized her colleagues for their threats to object to the electoral count and try to overturn the results of the election in her 21-page memo.

“By objecting to electoral slates, members are unavoidably asserting that Congress has the authority to overturn elections and overrule state and federal courts. Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states’ explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress,” Cheney wrote. “This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.”

Jim Saksa and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.