Punish Trump, lawmakers say. But what about Congress?

From expulsion to a good old-fashioned shunning, here’s what could happen to the Electoral College ‘rebels’

From left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, were among those objecting to certification of the Electoral College votes on Wednesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, were among those objecting to certification of the Electoral College votes on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 8, 2021 at 7:27pm

Workers are still cleaning up the debris and destruction caused by the deadly assault on the Capitol by pro-Trump marauders, but the political mess has only just begun. 

In the wake of the attacks that threatened lawmakers’ lives and left five others dead, Democrats have focused their punitive efforts on President Donald Trump, seeing him as the lead instigator of Wednesday’s violence. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer both endorsed the idea of impeaching Trump again.

But as calls mount to quickly find and prosecute the rioters and to remove the president with less than two weeks left in his term, Democrats are split on what consequences Trump’s enablers in Congress should face, if any. 

Pelosi only obliquely called for some kind of penalty against the Republican members of the House who objected to certifying the electoral vote count. “Accountability is also needed for Republicans in Congress who promoted the extreme conspiracy theories that provoked the violence, encouraged the mob and who, after desecration of the Capitol, went back to the House floor and continued to push the falsehoods that underpinned this assault on our democracy,” she said. 

“These Republicans abdicated their oath of office,” she said, without adding what should be done about it.

At the extreme end of things, the Constitution allows the House or Senate to expel a member upon a two-thirds vote — and on Wednesday, newly elected Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri called for just that

“I believe the Republican members of Congress who have incited this domestic terror attack through their attempts to overturn the election must face consequences,” she said in a tweet. “I will be introducing a resolution calling for their expulsion.”

Bush was quickly supported by other left-wing Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, Mondaire Jones of New York, Marie Newman of Illinois and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. 

Yet the threat holds little power. Even if Pelosi allowed a vote on expulsion in the House, it would more than likely fail to reach the threshold to pass, given that 209 of the 431 currently seated members are Republicans — including the 121 who objected. 

Until Wednesday’s attacks, Democrats appeared poised to limit their punitive efforts against their objecting peers to the kind of tongue lashings that accompany common partisan disagreements. 

But being chased from the chambers changed that for some, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II. 

Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor and nine-term congressman from Missouri, frequently sends notes to his colleagues urging civility during heated partisan moments. After Wednesday's attack, Cleaver was preemptively told not to bother this time by a fellow Democrat.

“He said, ‘Look, I can’t work with those guys after listening to them spout conspiracy theories on the floor of the House of Representatives and then vote with the rebels who wanted to overthrow the government,’” Cleaver said. “And to be 100 percent honest, I did not have a response.”

Cleaver agreed with the sentiment that the objectors supported insurrection. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” he said, adding that it was a widespread view among the Democratic caucus. 

Cleaver backs impeaching Trump again but would not support the idea of seeking to punish the congressional objectors anywhere but the ballot box. Cleaver said he opposes the expulsion resolution — without condemning it — and efforts to recall GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, his fellow Missourian who led the objection efforts in the Senate. 

Cleaver argued that any partisan attempts by Democrats to take procedural or personal actions to punish the objecting members would do little good. “It is going to be much more powerful and influential when it comes from the people on their own side,” he said. 

Minutes before the mobs breached the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell excoriated the objectors in an emotional speech. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral,” he said. 

Other Republicans have made similarly strongly worded statements, and one, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, even said Trump should be removed via the 25th Amendment.

Beyond angry denunciations, there are many things Republican leaders could do to punish the objectors — except for the fact that, in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana were objectors themselves. 

The Senate Republican Conference could vote to kick the objectors out of the caucus, which would strip them of their committee assignments. 

The House Republican Steering Committee proved the electoral power of committee divesture in 2019, when it kicked Iowa Rep. Steve King out of his seats after he questioned whether “white supremacist” was an offensive term. King was subsequently defeated in the 2020 primary by challenger Randy Feenstra.

Republican leaders could flex their political muscle and refuse to support the objectors’ reelection campaigns, but that will depend on how the party identity shakes out over the next year. McConnell, whose wife, Elaine Chao, resigned from her position as Transportation secretary in the wake of the riot, has shown no indication that he would take any punitive steps against the objectors. 

Absent any intraparty penalties, the objecting Republicans have no reason not to play to the existing party base, even when that amounts to a “threat to democracy,” said Shirley Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College.

“In reality, the penalty for doing this is zero. They’ll go back to their normal life in the Senate,” Warshaw said. “In the House, it’s just going to be business as usual.”

That may explain why so few of those who planned to object changed course at the last minute after seeing the ransacking of the Capitol. When they first decided to back the president’s baseless claims of election fraud, they expected at most a flood of angry rhetoric. All of the condemnations from Democrats and some Republicans, along with the scathing op-eds in the media, were presumably baked into their cost-benefit analyses, which remained largely unchanged. 

Many members have said it would be history, not them, that would judge the objectors.

“It’s not a question of personal grudges,” Democratic Rep. David Price told CQ Roll Call before Wednesday. “It’s a question of what they’re doing to themselves.”

The former political science professor and dean of the North Carolina delegation then invoked the memory of the Southern Manifesto, a segregationist screed signed by 19 senators and 82 representatives in 1956 following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

“I’m old enough to remember … how people dealt with the people who signed the Southern Manifesto,” Price said. “To the day they died, who did and who did not sign the Southern Manifesto was a badge of honor or dishonor with members of this body. And I think this is equally significant.”

All of the manifesto’s Senate signatories won reelection, except for Price Daniel (who instead ran successfully for governor of Texas), Walter George (who retired) and W. Kerr Scott (who died in office). Most served into the ’70s, and the manifesto’s initial author — Strom Thurmond — lasted until his death in 2003. Other signers include Richard Russell, whose name graces a Senate office building, and J. William Fulbright, who created the eponymous scholar program.

Price did not reply to CQ Roll Call’s request for a follow-up interview.