A long shot effort to overturn the election results is putting Vice President Pence in a no-win situation.
Pence, as president of the Senate, will oversee Congress’s counting of the Electoral College vote during a joint session Wednesday, a typically brief, ceremonial proceeding that will end with him announcing President-elect Joe Biden’s election win.
But the pro-forma role is turning into a loyalty test for Pence, as President Trump pressures him to challenge Biden’s win and some of the president's rivals for a potential 2024 White House bid lead the charge to overturn the election.
Doug Heye, a longtime GOP strategist and former leadership aide on Capitol Hill, warned that the process could have “ramifications” for Pence, even as he’s largely just going through the motions followed by previous vice presidents.
“Does Mike Pence do that and if he does, does he appear weak? Does Trump lash out at him? Do Trump loyalists lash out at Pence? He's been boxed in,” Heye said about Pence’s role in announcing Biden’s win.
Trump upped pressure on Pence during a rally in Georgia on Monday when he urged the vice president to “come through for us,” without specifically outlining what he hopes Pence will do during the likely hours-long session of Congress.
“I hope that our great vice president comes through for us. He’s a great guy. Of course, if he doesn’t come through I won’t like him as much,” Trump said. “Mike is a great guy. He's a wonderful man and a smart man and a man that I like a lot.”
Trump and some of his supporters have appeared unaware of the nature of Pence’s role in Wednesday’s proceedings, with various inaccurate theories spreading online that the vice president can somehow intervene to overturn the result or refuse to certify Biden as the winner.
“The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday, amplifying one of those false theories.
Pence campaigned in support of the two Senate GOP candidates in Georgia on Monday, with attendees shouting “stop the steal” and urging him to take action during the joint session of Congress.
For Pence, whose tenure as vice president has been defined by unwavering support for Trump, Wednesday is setting up to be the ultimate loyalty test.
“We’ll have our day in Congress,” Pence told supporters in Georgia. “We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence.”
People close to Pence say he believes there were irregularities in the November election and that those issues should be raised and debated in Congress. But they do not expect him to go beyond his role as it is laid out in the Constitution on Wednesday.
“He’s a man of deep faith, integrity and conscience,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who met with Pence in Georgia on Monday. “I think he’s very comfortable in his own skin. I think he’s very comfortable with what his rights, role and responsibility are, and he’s going to carry it out.”
After White House adviser Peter Navarro claimed incorrectly that Pence could delay certification of the election and demand a 10-day audit, the vice president’s team hit back through The Wall Street Journal by saying the trade adviser was “not a constitutional scholar.”
Pence and his aides have spoken carefully about his role on Wednesday, offering a series of comments that appease Trump and his supporters. But each one has stopped short of pledging to intervene or echoing the president’s unsubstantiated claims that the election was “rigged.”
“Vice President Pence shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election. The Vice President welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in a recent statement.
Pence met with the Senate parliamentarian and other staff for hours over the weekend as he tried to prepare for what is turning into a high-profile moment that could impact his political future.
But Pence declined to comment when asked about his role as he left the Capitol after a ceremonial swearing in.
Brief confusion flared Tuesday over Pence’s role after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was quoted saying he didn’t expect Pence to be there the following day. But the White House and the GOP senator’s staff moved quickly to quash the potential chaos with a Grassley spokesman clarifying that the senator "has every expectation that the Vice President will be present on the hill Wednesday."
Wednesday is expected to be the third time since 1887 that lawmakers have been able to successfully force a debate and vote on challenging the election results as dozens of Republicans align themselves with Trump, who maintains a fierce grip on the party’s base even on his way out of power. Unlike recent challenges, though, Trump has not conceded the race.
Pence’s role is largely ceremonial. He will preside over a joint session that is expected to start at 1 p.m. He’ll open and present the Electoral College votes in alphabetical order, ask if there are any objections to each state and “preserve order,” according to a Congressional Research Service report on the joint session proceedings.
If an objection doesn’t have the support of both a House member and a senator, Pence, as the presiding officer, will rule it out of order. But he wouldn't be the first vice president to have to shoot down attempts by his own party to challenge the election results.
Biden, when he was vice president, rejected objections from House Democrats who wanted to challenge the 2016 election results shortly before Trump took office. Former Vice President Al Gore shot down several challenges from his own party just months after the contentious 2000 presidential election.
When Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told Gore that she didn’t care that her objection didn’t have the support of a senator, which is required to successfully force a debate, Gore fired back: “The Chair will advise that the rules do care, and the signature of a Senator is required."
But unlike previous joint sessions, Wednesday will be rife with 2024 fodder. Pence is eyeing a potential White House run, even as he’s been careful to be deferential to Trump, and he hopes to be able to leverage his years as vice president into front-runner status with the president’s fervent supporters.
At the same time, GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) are leading the charge in the Senate to overturn the election and are viewed as potential contenders for the party’s 2024 nomination. While Pence is limited in his role, senators will be able to use multiple rounds of televised debate to make their case to Trump and, more importantly, his voters.
Heye added that the joint session would allow Cruz and Hawley to say "I was fighting all the way" but “Pence is potentially in a box.”