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Congress' Electoral Count To Resume After Violent Protests Halt Process

Papers and masks remain behind after House members left the floor of the House chamber as protesters tried to break into it at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
J. Scott Applewhite
Papers and masks remain behind after House members left the floor of the House chamber as protesters tried to break into it at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Updated at 6:38 p.m. ET

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi informed House lawmakers that Congress will reconvene Wednesday night to continue its constitutional duty to count and certify the electoral votes after pro-Trump protestors breached the Capitol and forced Capitol Police to evacuate both the House and Senate.

Pelosi said, "in consultation with Leader Hoyer and Whip Clyburn and after calls to the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Vice President, we have decided we should proceed tonight at the Capitol once it is cleared for use." She added that lawmakers expected the process to go late into the night but "we are hopeful for a shorter agenda, but our purpose will be accomplished."

The U.S. Capitol went into a lockdown Wednesday as lawmakers were conducting a formal tally of Electoral College votes and debating objections to the results.

Several Republican lawmakers who publicly backed the objections were meeting Wednesday evening to decide whether they would follow through with those challenges, as pressure mounted on them to stand down after an angry mob rifled through desks on the Senate floor, posted pictures in top leaders' offices and were photographed with Confederate flags in the hallways outside the Senate chamber.

A woman shot during pro-Trump insurrectionists' assault on the Capitol today has died according to the Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Kristin Metzger.

"We now will be part of history, as such a shameful picture of our country was put out to the world, instigated at the highest level," Pelosi stated in her letter to members.

Under the Constitution, the final step in the 2020 presidential election is for a joint session of Congress to meet on Jan. 6 to count the votes and officially declare a winner. Governors certified and sealed their states' results after electors signed off on them on Dec. 14, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won with 306 electoral votes to President Trump and Vice President Pence's 232 votes.

This session is typically a ceremonial affair, but this year, the protests and the lockdown highlight the bitterly divided reaction between the two major parties to the 2020 presidential election, as many Republicans falsely decry rigged results.

The first objection, to Arizona's results, was launched shortly after the session began. The lawmakers then began up to two hours of debate, with the House and Senate debating and to vote on the objections separately.

Around 2 p.m. ET, both chambers went into recess, however, as U.S. Capitol Police notified staff to shelter in place.

It is unclear when the proceedings will resume. The House Sergeant at arms, the top House law enforcement official, told lawmakers earlier that the Capitol has been cleared but the process to ensure that the chamber was ready for the joint session appears to still be ongoing.

Watch the livestream of the House floor below when it resumes, and follow more updates here.

How the joint session works

Pence presides over the joint session, and it is his duty under the law to announce the results. Members of the House and Senate convened in the House chamber at 1 p.m. ET.

The certificates from each state are opened and read in alphabetical order. According to GOP sources familiar with the discussions about the plans, the Republican lawmakers planning to object on Wednesday are focused primarily on three states — Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. They are also weighing challenges against Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.

Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz signed on to the challenge regarding Arizona's results and is pressing for the appointment of an electoral commission that would examine any claims related to voter fraud.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who was the first senator to announce he would join the House GOP effort, has indicated that he is focused on Pennsylvania. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who just lost her seat in a runoff decided overnight, announced Monday that she would sign on to a challenge to her home state's results.

Process for considering and voting on an objection

If any House member is joined by a senator in objecting to any state's electoral vote tally, they can object and force a debate and votes. More than a dozen Republican senators and a large group of House GOP lawmakers had indicated they would register challenges to multiples states' results.

Some of those members even acknowledged that they don't expect to succeed or change the outcome but are using the process to highlight what they believe are instances of fraud. None has provided any evidence to date, and legal challenges mounted by the Trump campaign and its allies have consistently failed.

If both a House member and senator register their objection in writing, the joint session is recessed, and the House and Senate meet separately to debate the issue for up to two hours. Members are allowed up to five minutes each to speak, and then both chambers vote. A simple majority is needed in both chambers for an objection to succeed.

With social distancing rules in place during the coronavirus pandemic, voting takes longer, so each objection could result in multiple hours of debate and voting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is presiding over House debate and has tapped Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Zoe Lofgren, Jamie Raskin and Joe Neguse to lead any responses to GOP objections. But Democrats from states challenged by Republicans are also expected to speak out against the efforts as well.

In a letter to House Democrats on Monday evening, Pelosi called the day of the joint session one "of historic significance" and said Biden and Harris won "decisively." She cautioned that members should view the session as "a solemn occasion" and "we will have a civics lesson about protecting the integrity of our democracy."

Supporters of President Trump attend a rally at Freedom Plaza on Tuesday, the day before Congress' joint session to certify the 2020 Electoral College results.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Supporters of President Trump attend a rally at Freedom Plaza on Tuesday, the day before Congress' joint session to certify the 2020 Electoral College results.

Pence, as president of the Senate, is presiding over the Senate debate. But Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is president pro tempore, is prepared to also be available if Pence is not available for any portion of the debate. Trump falsely claimed the vice president could alter the results, but neither the Constitution nor any federal law allows for that.

An administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record told NPR on Tuesday, "The VP intends to follow the law and uphold the Constitution tomorrow." This official noted that Pence, who is a lawyer by training, has prepared for the joint session by meeting with the Senate parliamentarian, reading legal opinions and studying the Constitution.

Pence released a statement as the session began Wednesday, saying he does not have "unilateral authority" to reject votes. At nearly the same time, in remarks to supporters outside the White House, Trump again called on Pence to reject Biden's win.

After each chamber votes — and no challenge is expected to garner enough votes to succeed — the members of the House and Senate return to the joint session and move on to the next state. After they have processed all the results, Pence will read the final tally and announce the election results for president and vice president.

Leaders had warned members that the process is likely to last several hours and could involve late-night votes. Democrats hold the majority in the House, and roughly two dozen Republicans in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have indicated they will join Democrats to certify Biden as the winner, so the outcome is not in doubt.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.