The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McConnell finally answers the ‘gotcha question of the day’ by acknowledging Biden’s win, but much of the GOP remains in denial

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news conference following the weekly meeting with the Senate Republican caucus on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news conference following the weekly meeting with the Senate Republican caucus on Tuesday. (Rod Lamkey/Pool/Reuters)
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Even the Senate chaplain saw the light before a majority of Republicans inside his flock.

“Lord, we respect the conclusions of the electoral college and ask you to bless President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. We pray in your great name. Amen,” The Rev. Barry Black, the nonpartisan religious steward of the Senate for 17 years, said in Tuesday’s opening prayer.

A few minutes later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arrived for his daily opening statement, in which he too admitted to what most of the world — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — had already acknowledged.

“The electoral college has spoken. So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden,” McConnell said, finally acknowledging someone he once called a “trusted partner” had defeated President Trump.

As recently as four years ago such remarks were perfunctory, the standard action taken by the congressional leaders after the presidential race had produced a clear winner. After all, Trump spoke to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) about 12 hours after media networks declared Trump the victor in a much closer race than this year’s contest.

In 2012, McConnell issued a statement declaring his “sincere congratulations” to Barack Obama and Biden within hours of their reelection victory. The following week he joined the bipartisan congressional leadership at a White House meeting to discuss areas they could work together in the next four years.

But the past 38 days since Biden’s victory was declared played out like a broken record of the past four years, in which Trump increasingly took control of the Republican Party in a manner unlike any other in American politics. GOP lawmakers continue to remain fearful of any move seen as undercutting their leader and the resulting angry Trump tweets that could follow.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether McConnell’s remarks suggested a true break in the dam of Republican denial — or, coming so many weeks after the election result, a mere reminder of the dynamics that have defined the party of Trump for the past four years.

As he spoke, fewer than 20 of the 52 Senate Republicans had formally recognized Biden as the winner of an election that took place exactly six weeks ago. Just 16 House Republicans had recognized Biden as the president-elect, based on a tally The Washington Post has maintained since starting a GOP survey almost two weeks ago.

More than 200 Republicans in Congress continued to duck the question altogether, avoiding any public comment on a pretty fundamental question of democracy.

As he entered a meeting of congressional leaders Tuesday night, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) stared straight ahead and walked past reporters asking whether he recognized Biden’s victory.

Most GOP lawmakers remain afraid to admit the obvious — Biden’s national-vote margin is the second-highest of the past six presidential races — out of fear that Trump could turn his supporters against them ahead of their 2022 election campaigns, leading to ideological primary challenges.

Republicans somehow believe that if they just remain quiet, they can avoid the fate of Govs. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) and Brian Kemp (R-Ga.), whose state election officials went to painstaking efforts to certify the results of their states’ elections, both of which Biden narrowly won. Trump now regularly directs falsehoods in the direction of both governors, prompting political civil wars within each state’s Republican Party.

Very few Republicans actually state that Trump won, although dozens upon dozens of House Republicans continue to egg on the president’s baseless claims of voter fraud. And then there’s Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a staunch Trump supporter who finally gave in Tuesday and told his local media that Biden had legitimately won the presidency.

But Johnson, in his final days chairing the Homeland Security Committee, still plans to go ahead with using his last hearing to examine voter fraud in the election, a hearing that Democrats and some Republicans have denounced as only furthering baseless far-right conspiracies.

It has been a week since the Supreme Court rejected hearing a specious challenge to the results in Pennsylvania, where Biden doubled Trump’s margin of victory in 2016, and four days since the high court rejected a similarly unfounded effort to overturn results in four cases.

Those rejecting Trump’s legal claim of a massive voter conspiracy included three conservative justices that he ushered onto the Supreme Court: Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and, just before last month’s election, Amy Coney Barrett.

Yet Monday evening, as the Senate returned to session for evening votes, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) still could not find a way to publicly declare that Biden had won.

“The ‘gotcha’ question of the day,” Barrasso, the No. 3 in McConnell’s leadership team, told reporters. He explained that he understood how the Constitution worked and that, earlier that day, members of each state’s electoral college had met in their respective capitals.

He sort of acknowledged what had been obvious to everyone from Fox News to Barrett, even the Senate chaplain, but Barrasso couldn’t bring himself to actually say that Trump had lost.

“I follow the Constitution,” Barrasso said.

In trying to avoid admitting Trump’s defeat, many Republicans adopted a new standard of waiting for the electoral-college count — they compared Trump’s legal challenges to those that occurred in the 2000 race that ended only with the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case just days before electors were slated to meet.

But that race turned on one state, Florida, where the final margin was 537 votes in George W. Bush’s favor. Trump’s team has been challenging results in six different states where Biden’s margin of victory ran from 10,000 to more than 150,000 votes.

Regardless, once the electoral votes were locked in Monday, several reluctant Republicans admitted what most world leaders had already accepted.

“I think everybody realized yesterday that counting the voting of the electors was a pivotal moment,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told reporters Tuesday.

A few House Republicans are organizing a last-gasp effort to block Biden’s ascension to the White House, hoping to take what has also been a formality — the congressional ratification of the electoral college count, slated for Jan. 6 — and using it as a protest vehicle.

McConnell discouraged any senators from joining that effort on a Tuesday conference call. Without a Senate sponsor, that motion to challenge a state’s electoral count is rejected.

Even if the House Republicans get a Senate sponsor, it would result only in a two-hour debate in each chamber. Enough Senate Republicans have already vowed to vote against this effort to ensure that it would not gain much traction — but it could put them in the uncomfortable position of casting a vote that would trigger exactly the sort of angry Trump tweet many have spent years trying to avoid.

Which is why, at this point, nobody should expect any Republican senators to take the extra step of asking Trump to concede.

“I’m not going to give him any advice. I think he will do the right thing,” Cornyn said.

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