WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Senator Ben Sasse on Thursday (Dec 31) condemned a drive by his Republican colleagues in Congress to challenge the results of the 2020 election, rebuking the effort as a "dangerous ploy" led by lawmakers who are "playing with fire".
In a blistering open letter to his constituents, Mr Sasse of Nebraska became the first Republican senator to publicly condemn a decision by Senator Josh Hawley to challenge President-elect Joe Biden's victory, saying it was intended to "disenfranchise millions of Americans".
"Let's be clear what is happening here: We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there's a quick way to tap into the president's populist base without doing any real, long-term damage," Mr Sasse wrote. "But they're wrong - and this issue is bigger than anyone's personal ambitions. Adults don't point a loaded gun at the heart of legitimate self-government."
Mr Sasse's scathing remarks came a day after Mr Hawley, R-Mo., announced that he would object to Congress' certification of the Electoral College results on Jan 6, the final procedural step in affirming Mr Biden's victory.
Mr Hawley's move ensures that the process, usually a formality, will force up-or-down votes on the House and Senate floors, requiring lawmakers to either show loyalty to President Donald Trump and object to the results or protect the sanctity of the electoral process.
There is almost no chance that the effort, led by Mr Hawley in the Senate and a small group of Republican lawmakers in the House, will succeed in reversing the outcome. But Mr Hawley's decision to challenge the results is forcing a test of how far the Republican Party is willing to go to back Mr Trump's false claims.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has discouraged lawmakers from objecting to the results, and on Thursday, he told members of his conference on a private call that he considered his vote on Jan 6 the most consequential one he would ever cast, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
Mr McConnell did not explicitly say how he would vote, and made clear he was not trying to sway senators to vote one way or another, the people said. But he framed the vote to certify the election results as a critical moment to defend the backbone of the electoral system and invoked votes he had taken on wars and impeachment to underscore its significance.
Even some of Mr Trump's usual allies have called his efforts to cling to power unseemly.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial board called it a "kamikaze mission" this week and said "Republicans should be embarrassed by Mr Trump's Electoral College hustle."
The New York Post, which has supported Mr Trump for years, proclaimed on Monday: "Give it up, Mr President - for your sake and the nation's."
Mr Trump has continued to falsely claim that Mr Biden unfairly won the election because of widespread voter fraud and has demanded that congressional Republicans work to overturn the results. Attorney General William Barr has acknowledged that the Justice Department had uncovered no such fraud that would have changed the outcome and the Supreme Court, as well as courts in at least eight key states across the country, has refused or rejected challenges waged by the Trump campaign in an attempt to throw out the results of the election. Those challenges have not come close to overturning the results in a single state.
Still there is a substantial rift in the party. While a steady stream of House Republicans have announced their willingness to object to the electoral votes of critical states, Mr Hawley is the first senator to do so. He hinted Wednesday that other senators could soon join his effort, telling reporters "a number of offices have reached out via staff to ours and said, 'We're interested.'"
On Thursday, he blasted out a fundraising pitch highlighting his plan.
"We must ensure that one vote means one vote in America," read the message, which was positioned alongside a photo of Mr Hawley and Mr Trump. "I plan to object to the results of the Electoral College on Jan. 6th, but I need your help."
It is unclear how many - if any - of his Senate colleagues will rally to his side.
His announcement Wednesday was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in many conservative circles. On the private conference call Thursday with Senate Republicans, Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is retiring in 2022, spoke up to make clear his "strong" disagreement with Mr Hawley's plan, a spokesman for Mr Toomey confirmed.
On that same call, details of which were earlier reported by Axios, Mr McConnell pressed Mr Hawley to explain how he expected his objection to play out, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But Mr Hawley was absent from the call and did not respond, prompting him to e-mail members of the conference later, explaining that he intended to force a debate on the issue of election security and noting that the election had left many of his constituents at home disillusioned.
Mr Hawley's objection will force the Senate to debate his claim for up to two hours, followed by a vote on Mr Biden's victory. With every Senate Democrat expected to certify the election, along with at least several Republicans, the Senate is likely to affirm Mr Biden's victory. The House, which must also conduct the same vote, is controlled by Democrats, making certification a certainty.
Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he was "curious to see" the evidence driving the objection, but expressed skepticism at the effort, noting that a slew of courts had already overturned challenges from the Trump campaign.
"There's a lot of things I don't want to happen that happen," Mr Cornyn said. "So you just got to learn to deal with it. And I think this is one of them."
"I question why he is doing it when the courts have unanimously thrown out the suits that the president's team have filed for lack of credible evidence," said Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine. "Senator Hawley is a smart attorney who clerked for the Supreme Court, so he clearly understands that."
Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who has questioned whether Mr Biden fairly won the election and is often eager to wade into battles demanded by Mr Trump, said he was supportive of Mr Hawley's effort but would not join him in objecting. He left open the possibility that he would vote to support the objection.
"There's no reason for more people to object," Mr Johnson told reporters. "All it takes is one. But I'll support his efforts and support the efforts of the conference" to "hear the issues."
House Republicans have been more eager to challenge the results. On Thursday, eight Republican members of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation announced that they would challenge Mr Biden's electoral votes, citing the use of election procedures they claim were unauthorised by state legislators. Pennsylvania's Republican state legislators also wrote to Mr McConnell on Thursday urging him to "dispute the certification until an investigation is completed" into allegations of election law violations.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said he believed that more than 100 Republican lawmakers could ultimately vote to sustain the objections in the House. In December, 126 Republican lawmakers in the House including the party's leader - making up more than 60 per cent of the conference - joined a legal brief supporting an extraordinary lawsuit seeking to overturn Mr Biden's victory, and dozens have already signed onto the effort to challenge the results on Jan 6.
Mr Kinzinger, a vocal critic of attempts by Mr Trump and his allies in Congress to overturn the election, said on The Bulwark Podcast that he hoped his colleagues would prove him wrong.
"I'm just over the undermining of democracy and the frankly massive damage that's being done with this," Mr Kinzinger said.
Some of Mr Kinzinger's colleagues have agreed that the effort amount to an inappropriate undertaking. Representative-elect Nancy Mace of South Carolina told The Post and Courier that she would not vote to overturn the results.
"I do not believe that Congress knows better than voters or better than the states," she said.
But more House Republicans announced Thursday that they would support the drive, and none came forward to condemn it. Four members of Missouri's House delegation followed Mr Hawley's lead, acknowledging in a joint statement they knew the effort would ultimately fail.
"We have no illusions about the outcome, at the end of the day, this is still Nancy Pelosi's House," they wrote. "Our only hope is that more will join us - that more will value protecting the vote of every American living in their state as much as we do fighting for yours."
Other lawmakers, led by Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas, had been trying a different tactic to try to block Mr Biden's victory. They filed a lawsuit against Vice-President Mike Pence that tries to invalidate the 1880s law that governs the Electoral College vote, a move aimed at getting a judge to inform Pence that he does not have to accept the electoral votes.
But on Thursday, the Justice Department, arguing on behalf of Mr Pence, asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, pitting the department against Mr Trump and his allies in Congress.
The department said in its response that Mr Gohmert did not have standing to sue Mr Pence over performing the duties that he is allowed to by law, and that - if lawmakers wanted to change the statute - they should sue Congress, which was responsible for its passage.
The Justice Department also made clear in its filing that it welcomed any comments from the federal judge in the case, Mr Jeremy D. Kernodle, that would clarify that Mr Pence's role in the election is procedural and that he does not have the power to reject votes or decide the results of the election.