A bipartisan effort in the Senate is underway to overhaul a 19th century law that has come under scrutiny in the wake of last year’s January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden have been pushing for the passage of more sweeping election overhaul and voting rights legislation, but have repeatedly hit a wall in the Senate amid Republican opposition. On Wednesday, Democrats tried and failed to change Senate rules in their latest effort to pass a voting rights bill. In the aftermath of that defeat, bipartisan talks focused on the Electoral Count Act – a law dating back to 1887 that details how Congress counts Electoral College votes from each state – are now gaining momentum.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah both confirmed that a bipartisan group of lawmakers will have a series of video meetings starting in the next several days to see if they could agree on a deal soon. It’s still too early, Collins warned, to know if a deal might be ready to vote on when they return from next week’s recess. “We don’t know how long it is going to take,” she said.
Collins said there were six Democrats working with the group of Republicans and that they have already talked to election officials, professors and other voting experts to try and clarify the Electoral Count Act.
Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Collins spoke to reporters on Thursday about the bipartisan effort to change the law with the aim of clarifying the process for counting electoral votes, protecting poll workers and more.
Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois are also circulating a draft proposal. The goal is to change the Electoral Count Act to limit the ability to throw out certified electoral votes when a joint session of Congress meets to count the votes of a presidential election.
“When we see what happened in the insurrection, and we thought this would be the first place we should have started … basically take care of what caused the problem, the attack on our Capitol,” said Manchin.
The law sets out the process Congress uses to certify the Electoral College votes submitted by the states. It has been the focus of calls for reform in the aftermath of the deadly attack by a pro-Trump mob on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which occurred after then-President Donald Trump repeatedly lied about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by falsely claiming that he had won.
Then-Vice President Mike Pence resisted calls by Trump and his allies to exploit perceived weaknesses in the act and insert himself into the vote-counting process to toss out Joe Biden’s slate of electors.
Manchin told reporters that he had spoken to Biden about this proposal when he met with him at the White House last week, and that the President had been supportive.
“The President feels as strong about this as we’re feeling about it. We’ve spoken before – I have spoken with him before – on the electoral count,” he told reporters. “Last week, whenever I went over.”
Manchin noted that poll workers are “scared now because of that highly charged political atmosphere we have,” adding that senators “want to make sure that we can rise this to the level of a federal crime. If you accost, if you threaten anyone who works in the polls, you will be dealt with in the harshest penalties. You’re not going to fool with our count or voting people.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki signaled on Thursday that Biden’s administration is open to supporting changes to the Electoral Count Act, but she stressed that, in their view, this is not a substitute for other election reforms Biden and his team are pushing.
“We’ve never been against it. We have always wanted to be clear that it was not a substitute for voting rights legislation, which some I think were attempting to project. And so, especially as we were working to get the John Lewis Voting Rights Act across the finish line, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which do very different things than the Electoral Count Act,” Psaki said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave his blessing to the group of Republican lawmakers aiming to work on the Electoral Count Act.
“I wish them well, and I’m happy to take a look at what they come up with,” McConnell said Thursday.
Asked if there were any red lines right now, McConnell said, “I just encourage the discussion because I think it clearly is flawed. It’s directly related to what happened on January 6th and we ought to be able to figure [out] a bipartisan way to fix it.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signaled some openness to reforming the Electoral Count Act on Thursday. “It’s an old piece of law, so you can always modernize it,” McCarthy said at a GOP news conference. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at any piece of legislation. I would think we’d look at a lot of things to make things accountable.”
But McCarthy – who objected to certifying election results on January 6 – dismissed the idea that Trump and his allies in Congress misused the law to try to subvert the election.
Collins said she was “very encouraged by the fact that so many of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle have indicated an interest in making sure that votes are properly counted and certified.”
“It means looking at additional protections against violence and threats for poll workers and election officials. Those are some of the issues that we’re looking at,” she added.
Still, changing the law is far from a done deal, according to Collins.
“Legislative text? We’re not there yet,” she said. “We’ve got to – we’ve got to resolve a lot of issues first, but we’re committed to do that and we’ve been working for three weeks.”
Collins said that she would not “put a timeline” on the bill, but told reporters that staff would meet Thursday on the proposal and senators will continue to meet over the next few days.
This story is updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Melanie Zanona, Fredreka Schouten and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.