Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Congress is on the verge, finally, of passing legislation that would protect the electoral process from a rogue president seeking to cling to power by overturning the will of the American people.
The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, championed by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, would clarify that the vice president has only a ministerial and largely ceremonial role in counting electoral votes. The language would make clear that "the role of the President of the Senate while presiding over the joint meeting shall be limited to performing solely ministerial duties."
Under "Powers explicitly denied," the act states, "The president of the Senate shall have no power to solely determine, accept, reject or otherwise adjudicate or resolve disputes of the proper list of electors, the validity of electors, or the votes of electors."
It is regrettable that after 150 years, the act needs such explication. But then-President Donald Trump's determination to hold power by any means necessary — despite having lost by a substantial margin — proved why the absolute limits on the vice president's role must be spelled out. Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley — he of the raised fist on the day of the insurrection — recently proclaimed his reluctance to support the bill because the current act "worked for 150 years."
But Hawley is wrong. The act in its original form was never seriously tested before Trump. That's because previous presidents and challengers alike were willing to abide by the lawful outcomes of an election.
Even in Bush v. Gore, when then-Vice President Al Gore challenged the results of an extraordinarily close election with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Gore, as president of the Senate, did not attempt to manipulate the act. He chose to pursue his legal case in court — an option that remains open under this new language. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision, Gore acknowledged his defeat and Bush's victory.
Now that we have endured a president rapacious enough to pressure his vice president to break with the clear intent of the Constitution, it has become necessary to spell out that which had been accepted since the founding of this nation: No one individual can subvert the legal outcome of an election.
It took strong leadership to produce this legislation. As head of the Senate Rules Committee, Klobuchar worked diligently with ranking Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri to forge the consensus that allowed it to pass out of the Rules Committee on an astonishingly unified 14-1 vote. They are to be commended for their determination to create a bill both sides could support. The committee's sole no vote came from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who appears to have little higher aim in life than to seek Trump's favor.
Thankfully, other Republicans, from Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on down, appear to have broken from Trump's thrall enough to support this much-needed protection to the election process. They have done so even after the act's language was strengthened by ensuring that courts could review whether a governor had appropriately certified state electors; providing a faster judicial review process and clarifying that nothing impedes state courts in ensuring fair elections.
Klobuchar told an editorial writer that "it was really important to us that it be bipartisan." She noted that she and Blunt "have worked together for a long time and friendship matters. There is a lot of trust between us." Klobuchar said that Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia stepped up to work for months on finer points of the proposal. "They came up with the agreement," she said. "We then had a full hearing with credible witnesses on both sides and the agreement and ways to improve it. We got the buy-in. Roy and I then negotiated for weeks on what we could agree for changes."
The result appears to be — Cruz and Hawley notwithstanding — a durable, bipartisan pact to pass the legislation after the midterms before a new session starts.
"We have to get this done by the end of the year," Klobuchar said, "But we're feeling really positive about this. It's very important for the Senate to stand up and say no one is ever going to manipulate the laws like this again." House Democrats passed their version of the Electoral Count Act but managed to draw support from only nine Republicans, primarily those who voted to impeach Trump.
Republicans supporting the Senate bill can appreciate that its clear and neutral language serves as a firewall to prevent a vice president of either party from manipulating the outcome. "This language works for everyone," Klobuchar said.