Senate Republicans are in open war against each other as Donald Trump’s presidency comes to a close, with his claims of widespread election fraud animating what will be the defining schism of the Trump era.
As the new Congress was sworn in Sunday, the Republican Party splintered badly as at least 12 senators planned to join about 140 House members to contest Joe Biden’s election win. The tensions are so high that individual GOP senators are now directly battling, with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) accusing some Republicans of undermining the right to participate in direct elections and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) decrying Toomey’s arguments and “shameless personal attacks.”
That exchange encapsulated the larger internal battle over just how close Republicans will align themselves with a president who is doing little to hide his efforts to overturn the election and who intends to remain a force after he leaves the White House. And it’s all happening just days before two runoffs in Georgia conclude on Jan. 5, races that will determine who holds the Senate majority.
“I’m concerned about the division in America, that’s the biggest issue, but obviously this is not healthy for the Republican Party,” lamented Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). “This is bad for the country and bad for the party.”
The clash over the basic pillars of American democracy will play out on the floor Wednesday when the Senate will hold two-hour debates on any state’s electoral votes that receive objections. Biden’s victory is not in doubt of being overturned, but lawmakers in both parties warn the push will be damaging.
The majority of the GOP conference is expected to oppose the effort, senators said, and Democrats said they believed the debate on Jan. 6 would include Republicans rebutting their own colleagues.
“You'll have a number of Republicans speaking on the same side as us,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
The episode echoes the failed 2013 drive by some Republicans to defund Obamacare, though with more urgent implications for future elections and trust in democracy. At the time, a small group of conservatives urged the party to do all it could to stop funding the health care law. The effort soon snowballed and led to a government shutdown and Republican backbiting — and helped bring Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to prominence. Similarly, support is fast rising among Trump loyalists this time around for objecting to Biden’s win.
Still, the objectors will be unable to prevent Biden’s win given that just a bare majority in the Senate is required to defeat challenges to the election. But Cruz and Hawley are unbowed and have both sought to fundraise off the push in recent days as they position themselves firmly in the party’s pro-Trump wing, even as the president mulls whether to run again in 2024.
“I intend to vote on January 6 to REJECT THE ELECTORS FROM DISPUTED STATES unless an emergency 10-day audit is completed. Our election integrity must not be compromised!” Cruz said this weekend.
Though senators like Toomey, Sasse, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine had all criticized their colleagues’ election challenges, many in the GOP were wary of stoking the intra-party rift any more publicly than has already occurred. Some insisted the party would reunify after the feud.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is up for reelection in 2022, panned Hawley and Cruz’s plans as having no path to success: “Neither of the two proposals that have been advanced will produce a result. I don’t believe it has much long-term impact in our conference.”
“This is an ill-fated journey,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va) of the electoral objections. Meanwhile, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said that he was “very dubious” of the effort.
But privately Republicans said many in the GOP are trying to paper over the conflict ahead of the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs, when Republicans need huge voter turnout margins to counter what appears to be strong Democratic early voting. Within the party, the bitterness is very real.
“It’s infighting we don’t need before a very significant runoff election. All of this should have waited until after the runoff, polls close,” said one Republican senator who is keeping their objections private for now. “There’s a lot of pressure to support the president in some manner or fashion. But … all of us are sworn to uphold the Constitution, not the presidency.”
The president took his pressure campaign to new heights Saturday when he called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and urged him to "find" the votes to overturn the state's election results.
As senators were sworn into their new six-year terms, some defended their decision to challenge Biden’s win. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) insisted that the effort was about “getting the facts” and not about loyalty to Trump; Lankford is up for reelection in 2022.
“None of us want to vote against the electors but we all want to get the facts out there,” Lankford said. “If we can get to some kind of commission which we understand is highly unlikely then we don’t have to vote against electors.”
“The people of Kansas feel disenfranchised, they want us to follow-up on the irregularities they saw in this election, and this is an avenue to do that,” added Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). “I feel like our Constitution has been violated.”
Sasse and Romney have accused the objecting senators of making a short-term political calculation to align themselves with Trump’s voters. Collins said simply: “It’s important that we all start acknowledging reality.”
The long-shot effort has also created some notable divides in the House GOP, though Republicans there are more receptive to Trump’s push to remain in power. House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney circulated a memo to her colleagues arguing that challenging the election results would be unconstitutional and could set an “exceptionally dangerous precedent.”
And former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act.” But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a top Trump ally, has not made any attempt to swat down the floor gambit, according to multiple Republican lawmakers and aides.
Meanwhile, a group of seven House Republicans — including conservative Freedom Caucus members such as Ken Buck (Colo.) and Chip Roy (Texas) as well as Rep.-elect Nancy Mace (S.C.) and libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) — put out a lengthy statement Sunday afternoon opposing the objection effort, concluding: “We must respect the states’ authority here."
Opponents of the effort to block Biden’s certification said they believed only a handful of additional Senate Republicans were likely to join the 12 who are now on the record. But they also acknowledged there’s still a couple days for pressure from pro-Trump voters to build.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said considering Trump’s popularity in his state, “the easiest vote for me politically would be to object to everything and vote for every objection.”