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GOP senators ready to acknowledge Biden won but struggle with Trump's refusal to concede

Posted December 9, 2020 8:07 p.m. EST

— A growing number of Senate Republicans are ready to publicly acknowledge what's been widely known for weeks but what they've refused to say: Joe Biden won the presidency and will be sworn in on January 20.

What they're less certain about: What President Donald Trump will do after the Electoral College votes on Monday and how they plan to respond if he won't concede after Biden is the official winner.

"Trump's going to do what Trump is going to do," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has asserted that Biden will be the President-elect once the Electoral College votes on Monday, but told CNN that it's Trump's call on conceding the race. "That's the only answer I'm going to give you."

For weeks, Republicans in the House and Senate have refused to acknowledge Biden's victory, arguing that Trump has a right to pursue his case in court and staying mostly silent as the President wages a rhetorical assault on a foundation of democracy by arguing baselessly that the election was "stolen" and "rigged."

And after interviews with more than two dozen Republican senators, many of them have pointed to December 14 as the defining moment -- when electors meet in their state capitals to make the results official. Yet they are also confronting a new reality: Biden will officially clinch the necessary electoral votes to assume the presidency and the President is showing no signs of letting up.

Many Republicans won't say if they'll acknowledge the electoral reality next week. But others are ready to move on and acknowledge Biden won.

"It is unhealthy for the well-being of our country, and our relations around the world if we spend time debating the outcome of the election once the presidential race has been determined," Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said in an interview. "The country is so divided today that it is not helpful that we would continue to have a debate about the process. Fix any problems with the process, but the outcome of an election can't be something that is debated for the next four years."

Yet a wide swath of Republicans on Capitol Hill are still siding with Trump or ignoring his daily conspiracy theories altogether, emulating a pattern through four years of his presidency, when many GOP lawmakers shrugged as they hoped the latest controversy quickly faded away. This time, though, the politics are even more complicated: Republican leaders are under pressure to reassure voters about the health of the democracy but also have little appetite to anger Trump when they need his support to finish year-end business on Capitol Hill and need to lean on his core supporters to turn up in droves in the Georgia runoff races that could save their Senate majority.

Even so, many Republicans say publicly that Monday is the end of the road for Trump -- and are openly questioning his legal strategy as his campaign's lawsuits have been readily dismissed across the country. On Wednesday, some top Republicans questioned the latest legal move: a long-shot challenge waged by the state of Texas, which Trump joined, seeking to block the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by accusing them of exploiting the pandemic to ignore federal and state election laws.

The senior Republican senator from Texas, John Cornyn, told CNN that the lawsuit is "very unusual" and a "long shot."

"I read just a summary of it, and I frankly struggle to understand the legal theory," Cornyn said. "Number 1, why would a state -- even such a great state as Texas -- have a say-so on how other states administer their elections?"

Noting that election rules are decided at the state and local level, not at the national level, Cornyn said: "It's an interesting theory, but I'm not convinced."

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the lone Republican senator to vote to remove Trump from office during his impeachment trial last winter, called the Texas lawsuit "simply madness" and "dangerous and destructive of the cause of democracy."

"The idea of supplanting the vote of the people with partisan legislators is so completely out of our national character that it's simply madness," Romney said.

Many others, however, were open to the lawsuit.

"That's a significant challenge," said Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican. "I'd like to see how that plays out."

Most Republicans see little reason to confront Trump and get crosswise with a President who has 89 million Twitter followers and legions of loyal supporters, even as many are privately aghast at his actions.

But some are ready to say the election is over after Monday.

Moran echoed a number of his colleagues when he said Monday was the final straw.

"Unless a court makes some other decision, the Electoral College is the defining outcome of the presidential race," Moran said. Asked what would be next if Trump doesn't concede, Moran said: "There is a transition that just occurs -- occurs under our laws under the Constitution."

Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, acknowledged Biden would be President-elect after Monday.

"I said until we get there that's a major threshold that the President has the right to look at anything and see if you can make the case," Braun said. "And that's been difficult to do so."

Still, Moran's fellow Kansas Republican -- Roger Marshall, who will assume the state's other Senate seat in January -- sided with Trump's rhetoric when asked if the President should concede next week.

"I think we should exhaust every legal remedy possible and investigate it until we have confidence in future elections," Marshall said Wednesday.

Some Republicans are concerned that Trump's refusal to concede will make it harder for the Biden team to carry out critical tasks: namely, distributing the Covid-19 vaccine.

"It's especially important that we have an orderly transition, if there's going to be one, because of the pandemic and the distribution of the vaccine," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the retiring chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "We don't need to lose one hour or one day in that distribution."

Alexander told CNN that Trump should concede assuming he loses the Electoral College vote on Monday.

"I think the votes are being counted, and states are certifying them and resolving disputes," Alexander said. "And it's apparent when electors meet on Monday, Joe Biden is very likely to be the President-elect. And if he is, I hope the President will put the country first, congratulate Joe Biden and take pride in his considerable accomplishments, and help him off to a good start."

Asked what would happen if he didn't concede, Alexander said with a laugh: "I think I gave you a good answer."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has avoided answering questions for weeks about Trump's efforts to sow doubt about the election, and the Kentucky Republican sidestepped a query on Tuesday when asked if he'd consider Biden the President-elect after the Electoral College votes. He said there's a process laid out under law that will be followed until the next president is sworn in, again refusing to say if he agrees that the next president will be Biden.

"This has become a weekly ritual," McConnell said with a chuckle.

But some of his top lieutenants are signaling it's time to move on.

"Well, I mean, I think once that's done, as far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much done," Senate Majority Whip John Thune said Wednesday when asked about next week's vote of the electors. "My expectation, certainly, is that once the Electoral College finishes the process, it's off to next year."

When asked if he would urge Trump to concede after Monday, the South Dakota Republican said: "Well, I mean, I don't know that he's ever going to concede. That's a decision ultimately he'll have to make."

Thune said he's relieved the transition to the Biden administration is now moving ahead, and added: "I think the Electoral College obviously brings some finality to this. And I think that with all the kind of tumult and swirl we've had for the past several weeks, it'll be good to get things settled down."

Whether Trump lets the process settle down, though, seems doubtful. This week, he's continued to rattle off a series of baseless tweets and lies about the election, arguing he's the true winner of the race.

But his already fruitless efforts to overturn the election results will severely diminish after Monday, especially if the Texas case is dismissed by the Supreme Court as many legal experts are expecting.

Asked if he'd consider Biden the President-elect after Monday, North Carolina's Sen. Thom Tillis said: "I think that pending the outcome of the legal challenges, yes."

'Why would I do that?'

On January 6, a joint session of Congress is held to count the electoral votes and declare the results, as required under the Constitution.

At the joint session, however, any member of Congress can object to a state's results. All it takes is one House member and one senator to challenge a state's electors, and the House and Senate are required to stop the joint session to separately deliberate the matter for two hours and vote on whether to exclude the contested state's results. But they have virtually no chance at preventing the ultimate outcome of Biden being awarded the presidency.

Already, several House conservatives told CNN they plan to object to the results on the House floor. At least one GOP senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, has not ruled out joining those efforts. He said he would wait to decide until after he holds a Senate hearing on the election results next week.

"I need more information; the American people need more information. I'm not ready to just close, slam the book on this thing," Johnson told reporters Wednesday.

Many other Republicans are also siding with Trump, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.

"Why would I do that?" McCarthy said when asked if he'd accept Biden as President-elect after electors vote Monday. "I'll wait till it's all over to find out. Every legal vote has to be counted. Every recount has to be finished. And every legal challenge has to be heard."

A number of Republicans are not ready to call on Trump to step aside, knowing his penchant for loyalty and the likelihood he will continue to loom over the party.

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, asked if Trump should concede after the Electoral College votes, said: "We want to make sure every legal vote is counted. I think that's really, really important. I think that's what the President wants."

Asked if she's seen widespread voter fraud that could overturn the results of the election, Ernst said: "That has not been presented to us personally. If they have that evidence, they should show it."

"After December 14, we'll talk," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, when asked if Trump should concede next week.

Republicans also showed little concern this week about Trump's efforts to overturn the election results in key states and the pressure campaign he's mounted in states like Georgia, where he has publicly and privately pressured Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, to take steps that could change the election results. Kemp has resisted those efforts.

Some Republicans claimed they had no knowledge of Trump's pressure campaign in Georgia, including Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"I guess my lack of awareness reflects my intent focus on the races themselves, as opposed to other exogenous factors like this," Young said, referring to the two Senate runoff races next month in Georgia that will determine the next majority.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, took no issue with Trump's efforts to pressure local leaders either.

"He feels very strongly that this election shouldn't have been certified," Rubio said. "He's going to court. He's making those arguments there now, and that would be consistent with that position that he has. That's not what the decisions of local officials made but if he feels that strongly about it, of course he's going to express that."

When asked if Trump should concede come Monday, Rubio seemed to think he would, though the President has never suggested as much.

"I think every indication is that unless something dramatic changes, the Electoral College is going to elect Joe Biden next week," Rubio said. "At that point, I would expect the President to acknowledge that even if he doesn't agree with the way we got there."

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