WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out on Tuesday in favor of legislation aimed at preventing election subversion, giving the bipartisan effort a major boost and putting him at odds with former President Donald Trump.
"I strongly support the modest changes that our colleagues in the working group have fleshed out after months of detailed discussions. I'll proudly support the legislation, provided that nothing more than technical changes are made to its current form," McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor.
McConnell had long encouraged the negotiations led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to tighten election laws.
The resulting bill, the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, was approved in the Rules Committee by a vote of 14-1, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the lone opponent. The committee, which adopted minor revisions to the underlying bill, sent it to the full Senate for a floor vote.
The bill would clarify the 1887 Electoral Count Act to limit the vice president’s role to counting votes, raise the threshold to object to certain electors to one-fifth of each chamber, bolster laws around certifying elections for the rightful winner and seek to facilitate an orderly presidential transition amid contested results.
“The chaos that came to a head on Jan. 6 of last year certainly underscored the need for an update” to the Electoral Count Act, McConnell said in his floor speech.
Lawmakers crafted the bill after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the building where then-Vice President Mike Pence was presiding over the formal tally of Electoral College votes in an effort to overturn Joe Biden's win. Trump has repeatedly insisted that Pence had the power to subvert the count, which experts overwhelmingly agree he did not. The legislation would make clear the vice president's ceremonial role.
In a rebuke of Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, “I think he’s wrong.”
“The vice president had no authority to do it," Graham, a Trump ally who supports the bill, told NBC News. "Being clear after people twist — I think being clear is good for the country. But there’s no way in hell the vice president had the authority to set aside a certified election because somebody claims they were cheated. Every state certified the election. All the claims were dealt with in court. None of them were substantiated.”
Before McConnell's support, the bill was co-sponsored by 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans in the Senate. The GOP leader's backing gives it a stronger chance of clearing the 60-vote barrier to break a filibuster.
“We must update the antiquated Electoral Count Act to ensure that electoral votes for president accurately reflect the will of the people in each state and to improve the process for counting electoral votes in Congress,” Senate Rules Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was pleased to see the bill pass through the Rules Committee on Tuesday and "looks forward to continuing to have bipartisan, bicameral discussions about the best way to ensure Electoral Count Act reform legislation is signed into law soon," his spokesman, Justin Goodman, said.
Goodman added that “as our country continues to face the threat of the anti-democracy MAGA Republican movement — propelled by many GOP leaders who either refused to take a stand or actively stoked the flames of division in our country — reforming the Electoral Count Act ought to be the bare minimum of action the Congress takes.”
The bill has some differences from the House version, which passed the chamber last week with Democrats and just nine GOP votes.
Some of the Republicans who voted against the House legislation said they were favorably inclined to back the Senate package. Among them is Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who told NBC News he was deferring to Collins on the way forward.
"Susan Collins put a lot of work into it, and that's the approach we're going with. My understanding is Susan wasn't a big fan of the way the bill was written," said Fitzpatrick, the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, referring to the House bill. "I think we need to get this right, and I think the Senate bill is what we can get behind."
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said in an interview he was warm toward the Senate bill.
"The Senate construct is more sensible, particularly the private rights of action," he said. "It's fair to say I'm warm to it — but with a big caveat of: I have not been involved in the process. So I want to interrogate the bill a little bit, ask some hard questions."