Uphill: What to Expect When Congress Meets on Wednesday

Welcome to the first edition of Uphill, our newsletter focusing on Congress. 

We’ll publish it on Tuesdays and Fridays when Congress is in session and when news warrants when Congress is out. Uphill will aim to keep you informed about the people and policy debates dominating Capitol Hill. To receive Uphill in your inbox, please be sure to opt-in on your account page. We’ll send the first few editions to anyone who signs up. After that, all readers will receive Tuesday editions but Fridays will be sent to paid members only.

This is a newsletter for people who want to know more about how their government works. We want to provide insightful, accessible reporting for those who want to understand what’s happening on Capitol Hill but aren’t obsessed with the daily news cycle. We’ll bring you critical yet fair coverage of the people in power. We’ll follow landmark legislation and partisan gridlock as the Biden administration takes power. We will also report on various factions in both parties and how congressional leaders try to keep their parties unified ahead of the 2022 midterms. We’ll try our best not to get caught up in all of the squabbles of the day. We’ll take time to highlight members who are doing good work on important issues like human rights. And you should probably get used to us complaining about each chamber’s remarkably closed legislative process, which restricts debate and limits member involvement. 

While this is not meant to be a newsletter for D.C. insiders—we’ll avoid the kind of Capitol Hill shorthand that’s both confusing and off-putting, and we’ll try to keep our use of caps lock to a minimum—we’re confident members of Congress and their staff will find it an interesting read, too. (Send us tips!)

I’m Haley Byrd Wilt. I’ve covered Capitol Hill for the past four years, most recently tracking the House of Representatives for CNN. Before that, I worked at The Weekly Standard with Steve, Rachael, and Andrew. I closely followed the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017. I’ve written about issues ranging from surveillance to trade policy to immigration to highway rest stops. (I’ve also had some clumsy moments along the way.) I’m thrilled to be on The Dispatch team, and I’m excited to get started with Uphill

With that, let’s get to it:

What to Expect Wednesday

Congress will convene in a joint session on Wednesday to count Electoral College votes. More than 100 House Republicans, along with at least a dozen GOP senators, are expected to object to the results in various key states such as Pennsylvania. The move has provoked widespread conflict among Republicans as President Donald Trump’s time in office draws to a close.

GOP lawmakers spent the weekend fighting over the plan, with House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney urging members not to support it. Retired former House Speaker Paul Ryan also decried the effort.

“It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans,” he said. “The fact that this effort will fail does not mean it will not do significant damage to American democracy.”

And conservatives like Reps. Chip Roy and Thomas Massie argued Congress isn’t meant to dictate election results to the states.

The pushback from various corners of the party hasn’t made a dent in the effort, though. 

So, what can we expect on Wednesday? We know already that it will be a long process. But how many hours members will have to debate various slates of electors and vote on the results depends largely on how many states Republican senators are planning to challenge. Rules for the counting of the Electoral College dictate that any objection to a state’s electoral votes must be signed by at least one senator and one representative. 

Various House Republicans are expected to challenge results from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But it’s not clear that all of these challenges will receive the necessary backing from a GOP senator. The Republican senators who have announced they will object to the results have, unhelpfully, not yet disclosed which specific states they plan to contest. 

During the joint session, states will be addressed in alphabetical order. Arizona will be the first to watch. When an objection with support from a member of both chambers does arise, the House and Senate will separate for up to two hours of debate each. According to the rules, members will be permitted to speak just once during debate, and for no longer than five minutes. After debate, each chamber will vote. An objection will be successful only if both houses of Congress vote to agree to it by simple majority. 

Reminder: When all is said and done, this won’t change the results. It will only delay the tallying of electoral votes. Democrats control the House. It is very unlikely that any challenge will succeed in that chamber. In the Senate, many Republicans are expected to oppose their colleagues’ efforts to reject the outcome of the election.

How long it will take to dispense with each objection will be complicated by coronavirus safety procedures. 

The House has primarily voted in smaller groups during the pandemic to ensure social distancing. This makes voting a lengthy process, often taking more than an hour. Members also need time to get to the floor from their offices, since not everyone votes at the same time. For virtually all members other than leaders, those offices are not in the Capitol but in congressional office buildings a couple blocks away. It’s not the most efficient setup. Before the pandemic, votes could unfold much quicker—a matter of minutes if members were already on the floor—though the first vote in a series would still usually take 20 to 30 minutes as members meandered over from their offices. (It would take even longer if members were moving slowly for various reasons, like being tied up in committee hearings.) 

After votes, it will also take time to disinfect the chamber. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Monday that if there are challenges to all six states Trump’s allies have targeted, it could take up to four hours to address each one, factoring in the two hours for debate and the time it will take for both chambers to finish voting. If you’re keeping track, that’s 24 hours.

In fact, it’s possible Congress won’t wrap up proceedings until sometime Thursday. 

Last-Minute Impeachment Not Likely

On Sunday, the Washington Post published audio from a phone call in which President Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to swing the state’s results to him instead of Biden. Since then, support has been growing among progressive lawmakers for a last-minute second impeachment of the president before he leaves office.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota wrote in a statement Monday night that Trump’s actions on the call were “another flagrant act of sedition from a president dead set on undermining the bedrock of our democracy,” and that the House must act to hold him accountable.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also thrown her support behind impeaching Trump a second time, telling reporters that “if it was up to me, there would be articles on the floor quite quickly.”

During the call, Trump asked Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” for him. President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes. 

“So tell me, Brad, what are we going to do?” Trump said. “We won the election, and it’s not fair to take it away from us like this. And it’s going to be very costly in many ways. And I think you have to say that you’re going to reexamine it, and you can reexamine it, but reexamine it with people that want to find answers, not people that don’t want to find answers.”

It’s not clear whether Trump violated any laws during the phone call. Some Democrats argue he did, calling for criminal investigations into the matter. 

But that seems to be as far as Democratic leaders want to go.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries declined to comment directly on the matter of impeachment on Monday, but he indicated new articles are not particularly likely.

“We didn’t impeach Donald Trump simply for a phone call, though the phone call was a part of his corrupt abuse of power,” he said of Trump’s 2019 impeachment. “That also included the fact that, without any justification, he withheld $391 million in security aid from an ally who was under attack by an adversary, Russia, as part of an effort to try to get them—meaning Ukraine—to target without justification Joe Biden.”

He added: “We’re not looking backward. We’re looking forward to the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20th.”

House Passes Rules Package

Democrats in the House approved a rules package on Monday detailing how the chamber will be governed during the 117th Congress. The package passed 217-206. Republicans uniformly opposed it, taking issue with one key change in particular.

Democratic leaders moved to weaken a procedural tool called “the motion to recommit” in the new rules. The issue is a bit in the weeds, but it will significantly affect how the House will operate for the next two years. The MTR is—well, was—the last chance the minority party has to amend legislation on the House floor before final passage. With the change, the minority won’t be able to use MTRs to alter bills from the floor—only to send legislation back to committee. 

In today’s top-down House, legislation is always considered under closed rules. These block members from offering amendments from the House floor. Amendments instead have to get a thumbs-up for consideration from the House Rules Committee, which is controlled by the majority party. Under closed rules, the motion to recommit is the only opportunity for the full House to debate and vote on amendments that have not first been approved by the Rules Committee.

With a significantly weakened MTR, Democratic leadership will have even tighter control of a chamber that has been increasingly closed to input from rank-and-file members. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan broke records for using closed rules, and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken a similar approach.

Democrats across the political spectrum became increasingly frustrated with the tool over the past two years, as their party sometimes struggled to remain united in opposing Republican motions to recommit. 

For example, more than two dozen Democrats voted for a motion to recommit in 2019 that amended a bill aimed at expanding background checks for gun sales. The GOP language sought to ensure Immigration and Customs Enforcement is notified in the event that an undocumented immigrant fails a background check when trying to buy a firearm. Democratic leaders and a swath of party rank and file were unhappy with the change.

MTRs need only a simple majority to succeed. Throughout the 116th Congress, Democrats from more conservative districts—like Anthony Brindisi from New York’s contested 22nd congressional district and Joe Cunningham, who represented South Carolina’s 1st congressional district before losing reelection in November—were most likely to break ranks in support of various GOP amendments. Democratic members from Trump districts feared political attacks based on motion to recommit votes. It was a valid concern: The MTR in recent years has been used primarily as a political cudgel to target members the minority is hoping to unseat.

“It is politics on both sides,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said ahead of the vote. “Not substance, not free speech. It’s about politics and ‘gotcha.’”

Republicans and Democrats alike have drafted motions to recommit to put pressure on vulnerable members and emphasize divisions within the majority party. Congressional leaders tell members to ignore the political game and vote against the MTR at all times, but they still succeed on rare occasions.

The chances for successful Republican motions to recommit would have been even higher this year, with Democrats holding a historically slim majority. Republicans would need to sway only a handful of Democrats in their favor to advance their amendments. (You can read more about the dynamics of the Democratic House majority here.)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned the rules package on Monday. 

“These changes will stop American voices from being heard,” he said, adding that gutting the MTR represents the “nuclear option.” McCarthy also pledged to bring back the ability to offer amendments under the motion to recommit when Republicans win back the House majority. 

Worth Your Time

Because so much political coverage focuses on the ups and downs of the moment, or winning news cycles, or pitched struggles for power, it’s easy to forget that lawmakers are people with families and challenges and personal triumphs and tragedies. We were devastated to learn of the loss of Rep. Jamie Raskin’s son Tommy, who died by suicide last week at the age of 25. Our thoughts are with Congressman Raskin and his family during this awful time.

Raskin and his wife Sarah penned an incredibly moving obituary for their son, celebrating his unique life. 

They detail his childhood spent “beaming with laughter and charm” and “making mischief.” Tommy is described as having an “irrepressible love of freedom and strong libertarian impulses” that manifested early on. His parents recount one instance when Tommy was in third grade and he and his dad noticed a boy returning to school after a suspension. “It looks like they finally let him out of jail,” his dad remarked. “No, you mean they finally let him back into jail,” Tommy replied. When he was older, Tommy co-founded a peer-to-peer tutoring program and spent time helping students in math and English. He competed in speech and debate tournaments, often more earnestly attempting to convince others of his point of view than most of his competitors. 

“He hated cliques and social snobbery, never had a negative word for anyone but tyrants and despots, and opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — ‘forgive me, but it’s hard to be a human,’” his parents wrote.

“Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind,” they went on. “He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless ‘disease called depression,’ as [his sister] Tabitha put it on Facebook over the weekend, a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Crisis counselors can also be reached by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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