WASHINGTON (AP) — The congressional joint session to count electoral votes is generally a routine, ceremonious affair. But President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to challenge Democrat Joe Biden’s victory will bring more attention than usual to next Wednesday’s joint session of the Senate and the House.
The congressional count is the final step in reaffirming Biden’s win, after the Electoral College officially elected him on Dec 14.
Republicans who are echoing Trump’s baseless claims of fraud have said they will officially object to the results, forcing votes in the Republican-run Senate and the Democratic-controlled House that will almost certainly fail.
A group of House Republicans had been looking for a senator to sign on because there must be support from at least one member of each chamber to force the votes. That support came Wednesday from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a possible contender in the 2024 GOP presidential primary.
Hawley’s challenge comes despite a plea from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that Republican senators not join the futile House effort. McConnell told his caucus on a private call earlier this month that it would be a “terrible vote” for Senate Republicans to have to take.
Under federal law, Congress must meet Jan. 6 to open sealed certificates from each state that contain a record of their electoral votes. The votes are brought into the chamber in mahogany boxes.
Bipartisan representatives of both chambers read the results out loud and do an official count. The president of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence, presides over the session and declares the winner.
The Constitution requires Congress to meet and count the electoral votes. If there is a tie, then the House decides the presidency, with each congressional delegation having one vote. That hasn’t happened since the 1800s, and Biden’s electoral win over Trump was decisive, 306-232.
The two chambers meet midday to count the votes. If the vice president cannot preside, there is precedent for the Senate pro-tempore, or the longest-serving senator in the majority party, to lead the session. That’s currently Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
The presiding officer opens and presents the certificates of the electoral votes in alphabetical order of the states. The appointed “tellers” from each chamber, members of both parties, then read each certificate out loud. The tellers record and count the votes, The presiding officer announces who has won the majority votes for both president and vice president.
After a teller reads the certificate from a state, any member can stand up and object to that state’s vote on any grounds. But the presiding officer will not hear the objection unless it is in writing and signed by both a member of the House and a member of the Senate.
If there is such a joint request, then the joint session suspends and the House and Senate go into separate sessions to consider it. For the objection to be sustained, both chambers must agree to it by a simple majority vote. If they do not both agree, the original electoral votes are counted.
Can challenge succeed?
It’s extremely unlikely, given that the House is controlled by Democrats and that several Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have acknowledged Biden’s victory. McConnell asked his fellow Republican senators on the private call Dec. 15 not to join in any House objection.
Several other high-ranking Republicans agreed. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, said earlier this month that if the Senate were forced to vote on a challenge “it would go down like a shot dog.”
There was no widespread fraud in the election, as has been confirmed by a range of election officials and by William Barr, who stepped down as attorney general last week.
The role of the vice president as presiding officer is often an awkward one, as it will be for Pence, who will be charged with announcing Biden’s victory — and his own defeat — once the electoral votes are counted. It will be especially tense for the former Indiana congressman because his boss, Trump, has refused to concede.
The joint session is the last official chance for objections, beyond court cases that have so far proven ineffective for Trump and his team.