WASHINGTON — After a busy week of negotiations, Sen. Susan Collins had a quick response when asked if former President Donald Trump’s missives were complicating a new legislative push to prevent future candidates from trying to steal elections.
“No, not really,” the Maine Republican said before the Senate left for the weekend.
Her remark points to a growing level of interest among a broad range of Democratic and Republican senators to update the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 federal law that established the convoluted process by which Congress certifies the presidential election result. The group, which expects to continue talks this week, is also eyeing new laws to insulate election workers from threats.
More than a year after he tried to exploit the system, Trump has continued to claim that Vice President Mike Pence could have overturned his election defeat. The effort culminated on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob stormed the Capitol, disrupting what had traditionally been a rote and uneventful procedure.
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While Pence had previously resisted calling out his former boss by name, he took direct aim at Trump's interpretation of the law on Friday. “Trump said I had the right to overturn the election. President Trump is wrong,” Pence said during a speech in Orlando, Florida.
Modification of the Electoral Count Act could include affirming that a vice president lacks the power to toss out results, and raising the bar by which lawmakers could challenge states' results.
As bipartisan support to improve the law mounted, Trump took aim at the senators in a statement last week, assailing “Democrats and RINO Republicans, like Wacky Susan Collins,” who he claimed “are desperately trying to pass legislation that will not allow the Vice President to change the results of the election.”
The next day, on Monday, the group met again. Asked if Trump’s attacks could complicate the negotiations, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said: “Didn’t seem to tonight.”
Trump kept up his attacks throughout the week, expressing displeasure at seeing “political hacks, liars, and traitors work so feverishly to alter the Electoral College Act so that a Vice President cannot ensure the honest results of the election” — and misstating the name of the Electoral Count Act.
Nevertheless, the senators persisted. The group has attracted wider interest in recent days and has broken into five subgroups to tackle different aspects of the law's overhaul. Members say they met throughout last week and plan to do so again this week.
In the House, members of the Jan. 6 committee and others are also exploring ways to prevent coups.
The Senate group hit the gas last month after the collapse of Democrats’ voting rights bills. The group is seeking to replicate the successful formula of the bipartisan infrastructure deal.
While still in the early stages, aides familiar with the talks say it is following a similar path: A chummy group of moderates from both parties — including Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — traded ideas over pizza and Zoom meetings.
Now, like then, Democratic leaders are giving senators space to negotiate. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told NBC News that the Electoral Count Act "needs fixing," has given Republicans a green light to cut a deal.
Three senators in the Democratic caucus — Senate Rules Chair Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent — released a “discussion draft” last week with detailed proposals to modernize the presidential count process.
Asked Thursday if Trump’s remarks complicate their work, Manchin said: “No, no, no.”
“Basically any good red-blooded American understands and appreciates the Constitution, appreciates the United States of America and the freedoms we have,” he said. “We've got to make sure we protect it. An orderly transfer of power is the most important thing we have.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Sunday that senators are also examining the Help America Vote Act and eyeing "safeguards" to protect the "chain of custody" for ballots, as well as protections for workers.
"We want to make sure that if you are going to be an election worker, if you're going to be there at the polling booth, that you don't feel intimidated or threatened or harassed — protections for that," she said on CNN's "State of the Union."
‘A complicated issue’
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who voted twice to convict Trump on impeachment charges, said the behavior of the former president and his allies may even give fuel to the Senate effort.
The actions that were being taken around Trump to overturn the election, he said, "suggests the need to make sure that all those avenues are closed — and are done so in a clear and convincing way."
Collins, a leader of the effort, said there’s no firm date for the full group to reconvene and that “it’s probably more productive” at the subgroup level for now.
“We’re making progress and everyone’s committed to the goal,” she said. “This is a complicated issue and the more you get into it, the more complicated and complex it becomes.”
Manchin, the Democratic “chair” on the Electoral Count Act subgroup, said: “This is the most important part we have. We've got to get this right. ... We’re making sure that this insurrection, or the motive for insurrection, can never be there again.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., another member of the group, cautioned that it is “early, early, early, early, early” in the process.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump is “wrong” for thinking the vice president can overturn an election, saying that he or she has “zero authority” to do so. Still, he expressed openness to revising the law to eliminate room for misinterpretation.
The effort has already encountered hurdles, and is “a lot more complicated” than some senators had expected, Capito said.
“If you get into disputes — precertification, postcertification, who’s certifying — the states have all their own different ways to certify their election counts. So we’re just getting a handle on that and historically, how that interplays with where we want to go.”