Collins warns Senate Dems: Electoral Count Act reform not a Trojan horse for your dead bill

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Oddly, this little nugget gets a bit buried in a Politico piece that focuses more on how hands-off Chuck Schumer has been to the bipartisan Electoral Count Act reform talks. Burgess Everett offered a bit more attention to Susan Collins’ brushback pitch on Twitter, which suggests that the sudden comity might still be a cover for resuscitating the failed election-federalizing bill Schumer attempted to force through the Senate:

Forget it, Collins said in her more complete remarks as quoted by Everett in the article:

Maine Sen. Susan Collins , the group’s leader on the GOP side, said the more narrow the focus of their talks, the more quickly the group can move. In addition to raising the objection threshold and clarifying the vice president’s role, she said the group is weighing reauthorization of the Election Assistance Commission and installing federal penalties for people who target elections officials and poll workers.

“There are some who want to revisit the voting reforms that were not passed. I’m not among those. I would like to do our best to come up with a bipartisan bill that could garner 60 or more votes,” Collins said. When it comes to reviving pieces of Democrats’ election reform package, she added, “there is not consensus, at all, on whether that should be part of any agreement that we’re able to reach.”

Is that Schumer’s game with the ECA talks? Before faceplanting on SB1 and the filibuster last week, he sounded entirely disinterested in any shift to the ECA as a distraction:

Schumer is among the Democrats who previously scoffed at any focus on the Electoral Count Act as a diversion from the party’s goals of expanding ballot access. He said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ’s endorsement of reforming the 135-year-old law was “unacceptably insufficient and even offensive” when compared to broader voting and election reforms that Democrats sought.

Yet that context has all changed since Democrats’ fizzled push to change the Senate rules and pass expansions to early voting and limit gerrymandering. More than a dozen senators in both parties logged onto Collins’ Zoom chat on Monday, and the core group now includes seven Democrats and nine Republicans.

Collins, who has tangled with Schumer both in her recent election campaign and on the Senate floor, said she’s heard “mixed” information about whether the Democratic leader will accept her group’s product.

What makes this remarkable is the relative silence that has accompanied these talks on the ECA. Collins hasn’t said much and neither has Angus King, who is apparently the Senate Democrats’ point person on this effort. Mitch McConnell expressed openness to reforming the ECA and went so far as to advocate for it in light of the debacle of the January 6 riot. For Collins to speak up now, it suggests that she’s gotten pushed to expand the scope of the reform past the ECA to basically create a new shell for the twice-failed SB1 election-federalizing bill — and that she wants to kill that strategy before it takes root.

There seems to be some resistance at the White House, however, and possibly on a strange point:

The senators say the White House has been lukewarm to their entreaties to overhaul the Electoral Count Act of 1887, known as the ECA. According to these lawmakers, Mr. Biden and his lieutenants are ignoring the effort, opting instead to pine over partisan elections and voting bills that have no hope of becoming law.

“This should be a slam-dunk for the White House,” said one Republican lawmaker, who requested anonymity because of their role in the talks. “Yet, they’re not enthusiastic. I understand this isn’t on the scale of the Great Society, but it helps fortify the guardrails of democracy, and that’s significant enough in an era of wide polarization.” …

A bipartisan group of at least 15 senators is holding talks on the issue. The group is looking at defining the role of the vice president and raising the threshold required to object to certifying a state’s electors.

Under existing law, only the objections of one member of the House and one member of the Senate are needed to force a vote on certifying the electors. Lawmakers want the threshold significantly raised.

“It has clearly become weaponized,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican taking part in the talks. “We clearly have to make it clear that the vice president is in a ministerial position, and there should be a higher bar for lodging an objection.”

Indeed, although the ECA isn’t quite as deficient on these points as presumed. Nowhere in the ECA does it grant the Vice President the authority to reject electors certified by the states, even if it doesn’t explicitly forbid it. Since the Constitution doesn’t grant that authority either, it doesn’t exist, no matter what “stop the steal” activists claimed after the 2020 election. Nevertheless, an explicit explanation of the ceremonial nature of the VP in this process would be a good idea after last year’s shenanigans, as well as a requirement for majorities in both houses on any challenge to a slate of electors.

The idea that the existing language and constitutional position makes a change unnecessary could be one reason that Biden and the White House aren’t backing a more explicit definition of the VP’s role as “ministerial” — if they actually object to it at all.  The Washington Times article is pretty vague on whether they have rejected that change or are just refusing to engage after their loss on SB1. It is arguably unnecessary, and maybe the White House is worried that such a change might offer a weird sort of retroactive legitimacy to the push to get Pence to throw out the electors. More likely, though, they’re worried about cooperating on ECA reform while letting SB1 rot for the second time in a year.

Schumer has to be worried about that as well. He’s keeping his public distance from the talks, but that doesn’t mean Schumer isn’t pulling strings to manipulate the direction the negotiations will take. Collins apparently isn’t buying the hands-off act either, and likely because she’s already seen it up close and personal, and also because she’s crossed swords with Schumer often enough to see through him.