The typically ceremonial process of Congress formally tallying the Electoral College votes on Wednesday will instead serve as a stress test of American democracy.
President Trump’s push for congressional Republicans to try to overturn his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden is sure to fail, but not without a long, drawn-out brawl expected to last into the night or possibly Thursday.
Here are the top five things to watch during the proceedings that kick off Wednesday at 1 p.m.
How many Republicans will vote to challenge Biden’s victory?
In the Senate, a majority of Republicans are expected to follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) lead and not support challenging results of the Electoral College, although his leadership team isn’t whipping the votes.
Thirteen Senate Republicans are expected to back some number of challenges.
But it’s another story in the House, where Republicans are hoping to erase Democrats’ historically thin majority in next year’s midterm elections and retake control by galvanizing Trump’s base.
Upwards of 100 House Republicans are expected to join the effort led by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) to overturn the results of the Electoral College. And in contrast to McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has signaled he backs the push.
GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) is the highest-ranking House Republican to oppose the Electoral College challenge, siding with conservatives like Reps. Chip Roy (Texas) and Thomas Massie (Ky.) who are also frustrated with the fractures Trump is causing in his final days in office.
“I think Trump’s diminishing his influence with this at the end. If he could have said, you know, we lost, we're going to keep our coalition together, we're going to come back stronger in four years whether I run for president or not, we're going to have influence. But instead, it feels like he's just blowing up not the GOP but his own movement by putting them through this at the end,” Massie told reporters.
In any case, both the House and Senate are expected to reject the challenges whether most Republicans join in the bipartisan majorities or not.
Which states will Republicans challenge?
At least one lawmaker from each chamber must object to a given state’s results in order to trigger up to two hours of debate and a vote.
House Republicans are pushing to object to the Electoral College votes in six key swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But so far, Senate Republicans have only indicated plans to object to three states: Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) to Arizona, Sen. Josh Hawley (Mo.) to Pennsylvania and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (Ga.) to her home state.
“Progress made. NEED more!” Brooks tweeted on Tuesday afternoon. “STILL NEED SENATORS FOR MI NV WI! America - urge your senators to fight voter fraud & election theft!”
The Trump campaign’s legal challenges in those states — which have all been certified by election officials — have almost entirely failed without sufficient evidence of voter fraud.
How will Trump’s Georgia call play into the debate?
The audio published by The Washington Post three days before Wednesday’s debate of Trump pressuring the Georgia secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat has only made it harder for Republicans to back the effort.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who is backing the challenge in the Senate, acknowledged during a Fox News interview that Trump’s conversation was “not a helpful call.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) warned his GOP colleagues considering objecting to the results that “you cannot — in light of this — do so with a clean conscience.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are sure to bring up the call during debate to defend the Electoral College results, particularly any objection to Georgia where Biden won by 11,779 votes.
Top Democrats, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), have suggested Trump’s actions were potentially criminal or even impeachable.
More than 90 Democrats have signed onto a resolution introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) to censure Trump for trying to reverse the election results in Georgia.
2024 politics to take center stage
Republicans considered potential presidential contenders will be at the center of Wednesday’s drama.
Hawley and Cruz are both viewed as possible candidates in 2024 as they lead the charge catering to Trump’s wishes, while on the other side are senators like Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) who have argued against challenging the presidential election results.
Then there’s Trump himself, who has hinted at launching another presidential campaign after he leaves the White House on Jan. 20.
Perhaps the potential 2024 contender in the toughest position is Vice President Mike Pence, who as president of the Senate will be tasked with overseeing Congress’s counting of the Electoral College votes.
That ceremonial role means that Pence will have to formally announce Biden’s election victory of Trump once the count concludes.
But Trump is forcing Pence into a final loyalty test by pressuring him to challenge Biden’s win, even though the vice president doesn’t have the power to do so.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you,” Trump said during a rally in Georgia this week. “Of course, if he doesn't come through, I won't like him as much.”
How does Congress handle the threats of COVID-19 and protests?
An unexpected House floor vote on Sunday night that resulted in lawmakers of both parties crowding together in clear violation of social distancing guidelines showed that they’re still struggling with health measures nearly a year into the pandemic.
A day later, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Washington despite a lack of symptoms.
“We continue to urge members to come vote and leave, and not spend time on the floor if they are not needed on the floor. But that hasn't always worked as well as we’d like and we continue to admonish members to observe that,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged on Tuesday.
The Capitol physician and Sergeant at Arms issued a memo stating that House floor access on Wednesday will be limited to members scheduled to speak and are otherwise “encouraged to remain in their offices unless called to vote.”
The Sergeant at Arms issued a separate memo this week advising members and staff to arrive early and use the underground tunnels to move about the Capitol complex in anticipation of protests and extensive street closures. The Capitol Police will also have additional personnel on duty to boost its security presence.
Trump has repeatedly encouraged his supporters to protest in the nation's capital on Wednesday, worrying local officials that there could be potentially violent clashes in the streets.