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McConnell breaks with Trump in finally recognizing Biden as the new president

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Dec. 15 acknowledged Joe Biden as the president-elect from the Senate floor. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made his sharpest and most significant break from President Trump on Tuesday, finally acknowledging Joe Biden as the rightful president-elect even as Trump refused to publicly admit his decisive loss in both the electoral college and the popular vote.

In a Senate floor speech early Tuesday, McConnell rattled off accomplishments he attributed to Trump and his administration, but made it clear that he accepted the electoral college’s certification Monday of Biden’s victory, something he and the majority of GOP lawmakers in both chambers had declined to do for weeks.

“Many of us hoped that the presidential election would yield a different result, but our system of government has processes to determine who will be sworn in on Jan. 20. The electoral college has spoken,” McConnell said. “So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. The president-elect is no stranger to the Senate. He’s devoted himself to public service for many years.”

McConnell also paid tribute to Biden’s running mate, Kamala D. Harris: “Beyond our differences, all Americans can take pride that our nation has a female vice president-elect for the very first time.”

Privately, McConnell and his top deputies took a more blunt line.

In a conference-wide phone call Tuesday afternoon, McConnell and other GOP leaders urged Senate Republicans not to join a long-shot effort led by conservatives in the House to challenge the electoral college results when Congress formally tabulates the vote Jan. 6. His remarks were confirmed by three officials familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.

Even if House Republicans were able to draft a senator to challenge the vote, the chances of success would be slim to nonexistent, given that states won by Biden have already certified their results. Such a push would effectively delay the inevitable, since the measure would certainly fail in the Democratic-controlled House.

Trump, who stayed out of public sight Tuesday, did not immediately comment on McConnell’s remarks, though he continued to falsely claim victory on Twitter. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she had no reaction from Trump on the majority leader’s comments.

“The president is still involved in ongoing litigation related to the election,” McEnany said. “Yesterday’s vote was one step in the constitutional process. So I will leave that to him and refer you to the campaign for more on that litigation.”

In his private remarks, McConnell referenced the vote forced by then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) after the 2004 election. Boxer was the sole senator, along with a handful of House Democrats, who objected to the counting of electoral votes in Congress in January 2005 certifying President George W. Bush’s reelection.

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McConnell on Tuesday told his caucus members that doing something similar next month would be a terrible vote for Republicans because it would cast lawmakers as either for or against Trump. As he did on the Senate floor, McConnell stressed that the electoral college has voted and reflected the certified results from various states, according to the officials.

He was backed up in his pitch by Republican Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Roy Blunt (Mo.), who were clear in their remarks Monday evening that the electoral college had spoken and that the results should be accepted. Part of the leadership’s argument was that this type of vote would crush GOP senators ahead of what might be a challenging midterm cycle in 2022, the officials said.

“I think as hard as the losses are to take, at the end of the day, you have to accept what the people’s voices told you,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said Tuesday. “I think that there was encouragement . . . on the phone for us to accept the result — as much as it’s not what we would have envisioned for the next four years — and to try to do what’s best for the American people, which is to look forward.”

Capito said there was no pushback to McConnell’s message on the conference call. And Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership, said he hasn’t heard of any Republican senators willing to join an effort to contest the results in Congress.

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Biden was officially declared the winner Monday with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. The former vice president under Barack Obama is set to be sworn in as the 46th president on Jan. 20.

Following his remarks, McConnell spoke privately with Biden, in the first publicly known call between the two men since Biden won the White House.

“I called him to thank him for the congratulations. I told him that while we disagree on a lot of things, there are things we can work together on,” Biden told reporters as he departed for a campaign event in Atlanta. “We agreed to get together sooner than later. And I’m looking forward to working with him.”

McConnell aides confirmed that the call occurred but declined to comment further. Biden has spoken on the phone with a number of other Republican senators, including Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine) and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), according to their aides.

Still, it was unclear Tuesday afternoon whether McConnell’s move to discourage senators would influence conservatives in the House, where some Republicans, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.), are planning to challenge a slate of electors when the House and the Senate meet in the Jan. 6 joint session to count the votes.

All it would take is one senator to echo the expected objection in the House by Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member who plans to challenge a handful of swing-state slates that went for Biden. But even aside from resistance in the Senate, such a measure would be torpedoed by House Democrats.

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In a seeming display of encouragement, Trump on Tuesday retweeted an article from Breitbart News that quoted Brooks as saying Trump won the electoral college, which is false, and discussing his efforts to contest the election results in the House.

In recent days, Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had suggested that they were open to the idea. But Johnson said in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview published Tuesday that he sees Biden as the president-elect and that he has no plans to be the senator to make the objection.

“Something would have to surface that would call into question the legitimacy of the election,” Johnson told the publication. Paul’s office did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Brooks and House Freedom Caucus conservatives, however, are not giving up.

In recent weeks they’ve privately lobbied multiple GOP senators in an attempt to find someone who would echo the objection in the Senate and trigger a vote in both chambers to overturn the electoral college results. Many Republican senators view their effort as a nuisance and are unwilling to go along.

Still, conservatives in the House say that they have multiple options and that McConnell’s advice won’t matter.

“These conversations are continuing,” said a conservative House aide familiar with the planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. “Leader McConnell’s preferences will not figure into our planning.”

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The group is still eyeing Sen. Kelly Loeffler as a wild card who could save their cause.

The Georgia Republican is locked in a tight race to win election in a runoff that will be held just one day before Congress meets to approve the electoral college votes. Conservatives have argued to Loeffler that if she declares she will object, she could turn out her base in Georgia and save her seat.

Loeffler has yet to make her intentions clear. Neither she nor Sen. David Perdue (R), who is in another runoff race in Georgia, have recognized Biden as the president-elect.

McConnell’s comments, both in private and on the Senate floor, were a remarkable coda to the unusual alliance he crafted with Trump in the past four years — a melding of two dramatically different personalities who shared the primary goal of racking up wins, both in politics and on policy fronts.

The majority leader repeatedly held his tongue in the face of some of the president’s most uncouth remarks, frequently declining to comment on Trump’s tweets but speaking out on presidential actions with which he disagreed, such as the decision to withdraw troops from Syria late last year.

McConnell began his unexpected floor speech Tuesday with adulation of the outgoing president, praising Trump on several fronts such as the speedy development of a coronavirus vaccine and the prospering economy until the pandemic hit the globe earlier this year.

He saluted Trump for installing three conservative Supreme Court justices, as well as a cavalcade of young jurists on the federal appellate and district courts, who McConnell said will “renew the judiciary for a generation.”

“It will take far more than one speech to catalogue all the major wins that the Trump administration has helped to deliver for the American people,” McConnell said. “The outsider who swore he would shake up Washington and lead our country to new accomplishments — both at home and abroad — proceeded to do exactly that.”