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Bipartisan bill would clarify that VP role with electors is only ceremonial

Legislation would also increase threshold to challenge a state’s electors

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence conduct a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, before a riotous mob attacked the Capitol trying to stop them.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence conduct a joint session of Congress to certify the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, 2021, before a riotous mob attacked the Capitol trying to stop them. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan group of senators is expected to release a bill as soon as next week clarifying that the vice president has only a ceremonial role when Congress tallies Electoral College votes after a presidential election.

The legislation would also increase, from one each in the House and Senate, the number of lawmakers required to challenge a slate of electors from a state, according to a source close to the talks. The source did not disclose what the new threshold would be.

The bipartisan group of more than a dozen lawmakers had been meeting to discuss election laws and broke into subgroups to handle topics such as funding for protecting poll workers and changes to voting procedures and rights, along with updating the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs the acceptance of presidential votes.

The subgroup handling the ECA had been headed by Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Potential changes to the ECA and other election rules have been highlighted in some of the recent hearings of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot by supporters of then-President Donald Trump seeking to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election. The House panel has pointed to how Trump allies argued that then-Vice President Mike Pence should use false claims of fraud to justify rejecting electors from Pennsylvania, Arizona and other states Biden won.

After meeting Wednesday night, Senate lawmakers involved in talks said there’s not much left to do but iron out a few remaining wrinkles in the bill’s text.

“What we’re trying to do now is just figure out mechanically how we move forward,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, one of the group’s members. “We’ve still got a few points of conflict, but all those things are being discussed.”

The North Carolina Republican said the legislation is also expected to include other provisions, such as improvements to the U.S. Postal Service’s capacity to process mail-in ballots and change the way grants provided through the Help America Vote Act can be used.

Congress has a sporadic record on funding for administering elections, with grants provided to states and localities in some years but not others. Ahead of the 2018 election, appropriators provided $380 million. Another $425 million was provided ahead of the 2020 election, which was supplemented by $400 million in a pandemic response bill to help with the sudden cost of running more elections by mail.

After the text is released, the bill’s most likely next step would be in the Rules and Administration Committee, rather than going directly to the Senate floor, the source said.

Some lawmakers and outside groups, however, are concerned about misuse of the ECA in the 2024 presidential election and see the window of opportunity for action rapidly closing.

Asked when the legislation might be ready to come up for a floor vote, Democratic Virginia Sen. Mark Warner demurred.

“Let’s get the text out first, which is imminent,” he said.

Warner praised his colleagues for maintaining bipartisan support for the bill, a task complicated by demands by liberal groups that sought to include voting rights provisions that Republicans already blocked.

“With all of the craziness that’s going around, there still remains bipartisan gangs that are putting points on the board,” he said.

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