By Ryan Alessi, publisher
In the wake of a pro-Trump mob violently storming the U.S. Capitol, Harrisonburg’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, condemned Wednesday’s chaos in a tweet and called for those responsible to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Hours later, Cline voted with more than 100 House Republicans in failed bids to reject Arizona and Pennsylvania’s Electoral College ballots cast for Joe Biden.
Cline had been preparing to vote to object to Arizona’s Electoral College ballots Wednesday afternoon when hundreds of rioters, some carrying Confederate and Trump flags, broke into the Capitol, clashed with police officers and incited gunfire that killed one woman.
“While people have a right to peaceably protest, those who breached he Capitol and assaulted Capitol Police officers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Cline tweeted at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday. “Violence is never the answer, and I condemn their actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Throughout the afternoon, news networks broadcast images hordes of rioters laying siege to the Capitol, some smashing windows, others breaking into Capitol offices and one man raising his arm while standing at the dais in the Senate chambers. Virginia State Police troopers joined the Maryland State Police and National Guard troops in securing the Capitol and enforcing a 6 p.m. curfew imposed by D.C.’s mayor.
It was an extraordinary and tumultuous scene in Washington on a day that has, in the past, been ceremonial — Congress receiving the Electoral College ballots from each state.
The violent interruption, which one Republican leader called a “failed insurrection,” reshaped the debate in several ways. Instead of debating the outcome of as many as five states, the House and Senate broke from the joint session of Congress just twice. Any objection requires the signature of both a House and Senate member, and Republican Representatives said on the House floor Wednesday night they objected to Georgia, Michigan and Nevada’s ballots but didn’t secure a Senate signature and when Wisconsin came up at 3:36 a.m. Thursday, the Senator who had committed to signing that objection had withdrawn his signature.
And while members of both parties cited the violence in the course of the debates that lasted well into the night.
“It’s time, as the law requires, to announce the state of the people’s vote,” said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, shortly after midnight Thursday as she urged acceptance of Pennsylvania’s Electoral College ballots. “The violence and disorder inflicted on our democracy by seditious rioters today is why adherence to our Constitution is so vital.”
Ultimately, the objections to Arizona and Pennsylvania’s Electoral College ballots failed. The House voted 303-121 and the Senate voted 93-6 to turn down the objection to Arizona’s ballots late Wednesday, while the objection to Pennsylvania’s results failed 92-7 in the Senate and 282-138 in the House shortly after 3 a.m. Thursday.
Heading into Wednesday, 13 Republican senators had pledged to object to electors from key states Joe Biden won on Nov. 3. But by the time Senate voted on the Arizona challenge, some of them — including U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost one of Tuesday’s special elections in Georgia — backed off the objections in the wake of the violence.
And those rioters who attacked the Capitol while refusing to accept President Donald Trump’s loss drew the ire of many lawmakers.
“They tried to disrupt our democracy,” U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said of the rioters when the Senate reconvened shortly after 8 p.m. “They failed. This failed insurrection only underscores how crucial the task before us is for our republic.”
Cline had aligned with a group of House Republicans who were prepared to object to certain states’ Electoral College ballots. Cline announced Tuesday that he would support those objections because
“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, and this is a duty that I do not take lightly or without thoughtful consideration and deliberation,” Cline said in his Jan. 5 statement.
Specifically, Cline cited Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 that outlines that “each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors …”
Cline’s statement said legislatures should be the only ones to set or change rules regarding the implementation and administration of elections, but he took issue with states that saw voting changes last year by executive orders, such as those by governors or secretaries of state, or as the result of court orders. Such changes included allowing more early voting and mail-in voting in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These changes are in direct violation” of the Constitution, Cline’s statement said.
“Therefore, because I continue to have serious concerns regarding the constitutionality of these electors, I will vote to uphold objections to their certification on January 6,” his statement said.
In the case of Arizona, a federal judge ruled in September that the state could count ballots from voters who forgot to sign them while another federal court ruling in October extended the voter registration deadline.
Making changes to voting procedures that weren’t legislatively approved formed the basis for one of several rationales mentioned by House Republicans during their objections to Arizona’s Electoral College votes — a challenge brought by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, and co-signed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — and to those Electoral College ballots from Pennsylvania, a debate that started 12:20 a.m. Thursday.
More than 30 states changed election rules in 2020, and not all such changes were made by state legislatures. For instance, Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams agreed in August to change voting rules to allow more voters to cast their ballots early and through absentee ballots. But Kentucky, which voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the Nov. 3 election, was not among the states House Republicans mentioned in the debate.
Cline’s communications director, Matthew Hanrahan, told The Citizen Wednesday morning that Cline wasn’t planning to speak during the debate. Hanrahan also said at that time, hours before debate began, that given the hectic schedule, Cline might not have time for an interview. He didn’t respond to follow-up requests from The Citizen Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Meanwhile, across the Capitol, McConnell described the vote he was preparing to take to certify the Arizona ballots and reject the objection as “most important vote I’ve ever cast” in his 36-year Senate career. He pointedly rejected President Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud.
“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken. They’ve all spoken. If we overrule them, it would damage our republic forever,” McConnell said. “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral. We’d never see the whole nation accept an election again.”
President Trump, though, continued to argue that he won “in a landslide” in the course of a one-minute video purportedly aimed at urging the rioters to leave the Capitol grounds. By the evening, Twitter had suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours. Facebook followed suit hours later.
Both Trump’s deputy press secretary, Sarah Matthews, and his former press secretary and the chief of staff to the first lady, Stephanie Grisham, resigned. Matthews, in her statement, called for a peaceful transfer of power.
Chris Christie, the former Republican presidential candidate and past New Jersey governor, told ABC News Wednesday afternoon that members of Congress who stood to clap at the start of the debate over challenging Arizona’s electors must speak out against the violence and lies about the election results.
“They need to be just as loud that this is not acceptable,” Christie said. “As Republicans, we need to decide whether we’re going to stand up and speak the truth.”
Vice President Mike Pence opened the Senate’s return Wednesday night by criticizing the insurrectionists.
“We condemn the violence that took place here in the strongest possible terms,” he said. “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s house.”
Earlier in the day, Pence broke with Trump by issuing a statement saying the Constitution did not grant the vice president powers to reject any Electoral College votes. Pence ended the joint session nearly 15 hours after it began by reading the final Electoral College vote tallies: 306 for Biden and 232 for Trump.
Still, Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy of California paved the way for some Republicans to continue their objections.
“These are the moments that we should raise the issue of integrity and accountability and accuracy in our elections,” McCarthy said on the House floor as debate resumed Wednesday night. “We will follow the Constitution and the law and process for hearing valid concerns about election integrity.”
As Congress returned to the Capitol chambers Wednesday evening, the messages were mixed about just how destruction will widen or potentially bridge the gaping divisions in America.
Some Democrats raised the prospect of drawing up articles of impeachment during the final two weeks of Trump’s term.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York laid the blame for Wednesday’s violence at Trump’s feet.
“This president bears a great deal of the blame. This mob was in good part President Trump’s doing – incited by his words and his lies,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Today’s events certainly, certainly would not have happened without him.”
Others, though, expressed hope that the wounds — actual and symbolic — could lead to overdue national healing.
“In this most difficult and challenging time, it might be this horrible act that starts uniting us back and doing our job the way we’re supposed to,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told ABC News on Wednesday afternoon.
It also comes as Democrats won the two U.S. Senate special elections in Georgia, giving that party an edge in the 50-50 Senate because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will serve as the tiebreaker.
Manchin and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner are among centrist Democrats who have worked with moderate Republicans, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, and they could find themselves in even more crucial roles in the closely divided chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when she opened the reconvening of the House a few minutes after 9 p.m. said she hoped the attack on the Capitol would lead to “an epiphany for our country to heal.”
Then she prepared for debate to resume.
“It’s time,” she said, “to move on.”
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