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Bipartisan bill to prevent future coup schemes still has a chance

A bill to reform the Electoral Count Act is starting to look more likely. That would be a very positive development for everyone — except coup plotters.


In theory, the pieces appear to be in place to pass legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act. A bipartisan agreement is in place; it’s already cleared the House; and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has offered unexpectedly enthusiastic support for the measure.

In practice, the challenge is figuring out how to pass it before the new Congress is sworn in three weeks from today. NBC News reported:

The government funding bill is likely the last train leaving the station in the current session of Congress, and a number of other provisions could ride along. Chief among them is a major overhaul of election laws, designed to prevent another Jan. 6 by making it harder for losing presidential candidates to claim victory. Senators have struck a deal on a bill that cleared committee on a bipartisan vote of 14-1 in September.

The plan, by all appearances, is relatively straightforward: Congressional leaders are working on an omnibus spending package that would finance the government through the end of the fiscal year and prevent a shutdown. Just over the last 48 hours, there’s been some progress on reaching an agreement, which would need 60 votes to advance in the Senate.

Once the spending deal is in place — if there’s a deal in place — the next part of the plan would be to attach Electoral Count Act reforms as an amendment, at which point it could all pass together in one big package.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and who has helped champion the bill, expressed confidence to NBC News that this will work out.

“We will get this done by the end of the year if I have to slow everything else down,” the Minnesotan said in an interview. “It’s going to happen.”

For a variety of important reasons, that would be a very positive development for everyone — except coup plotters.

It’s been a while since we last explored the issue, so let’s revisit our earlier coverage and review how we arrived at this point.

When John Eastman, the highly controversial Republican lawyer on Donald Trump’s team in the aftermath of the former president’s defeat, wrote an infamous memo intended to help overturn the 2020 results, his strategy focused on a specific task: exploiting ambiguities in the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

The law was passed in the aftermath of a brutally messy election controversy, and it was designed to establish a congressional process for certifying electoral votes. For generations, it was largely treated as a legal afterthought, if it was thought of at all.

All of that changed in dramatic fashion during the Trump era — or more specifically, as the Trump era came to a difficult end — when it became obvious that the antiquated law was in need of an overhaul.

To that end, as an NBC News report explained, the bipartisan Presidential Election Reform Act would amend the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act “to remove any doubt that the vice president’s role in counting Electoral College votes is simply ministerial. It would lift the threshold for members of Congress to force a vote on discounting presidential electors from just one member of the House and the Senate each to one-third of both chambers. And it would require governors to send electors to Congress for the candidate who won, based on state law set before Election Day, which cannot be retroactively changed.”

It would be an overstatement to see this as a wholesale fix for systemic electoral concerns. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, for example, remains necessary, and its goals are not addressed in the legislation.

But negotiators didn’t even try to answer those questions. Rather, as Electoral Count Act reforms came together, it was a more narrowly focused effort, inspired to counter Team Trump’s insurrectionist goals and prevent future coup attempts.

And by any fair measure, the bill on the table would go a long way toward preventing such future crises.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared on the chamber floor this morning and expressed optimism, not just about an omnibus spending bill, but also about adding the Presidential Election Reform Act to the package. The New York Democrat added, “It will be great to get that done.” It will, indeed.