WASHINGTON — Nearly two years later, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin is still processing the surreal scenes he saw inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as a mob loyal to then-President Donald Trump forced its way in as lawmakers were finalizing the 2020 presidential election results.
The Maryland Democrat watched as the Secret Service hustled the vice president out of the Senate, heard loud noises outside the chamber and was implored by police to “run as quickly as we can” with colleagues down two levels and through the Capitol tunnels to an undisclosed safe location.
“It’s still difficult,” Cardin says. “We relive it when we see the videos today.”
That jarring afternoon may remain lodged in his memory, but Cardin and many of his colleagues — including fellow U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Baltimore-area U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes — are pushing for pending legislation to lessen the chances of similar insurrections by eliminating ambiguity in the electoral count system that officially decides who will be president. Cardin was a member of an informal, bipartisan Senate group that developed the pending bill.
The legislation makes clear that the vice president can’t overturn presidential elections by unilaterally rejecting states’ electoral votes. It appears to have enough support from both parties to be approved — even during a “lame duck” congressional session when lawmakers are often reluctant to approve significant legislation. Such sessions occur during post-election periods when legislators, including any who lost, are completing their terms.
“We have enough Republicans, including [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, to move it forward,” said Van Hollen, a Democrat. “And I think that’s because even some Republicans realize that we do need to do everything we can to prevent another Jan. 6, another day that makes our democracy vulnerable to attack.”
It’s not certain when Congress will recess, but time is running short to approve major legislation before the end of its two-year session. Lawmakers face a Dec. 16 deadline to approve a measure funding the federal government, and could leave town after that business is done.
Approval of significant legislation often sets off celebration in the House or Senate by lawmakers of one party or another. To Democrats and a smattering of Republican supporters, this bill’s passage would more likely elicit relief than joy.
The Jan. 6 mob stormed the building, threatening the lives of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Vice President Mike Pence. The rioters, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” sought to halt Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote count and deny Democratic President Joe Biden’s victory.
Congressional aides had secured cases of paper containing the states’ presidential election results before the rioters arrived. Afterward, the Capitol complex was surrounded for several months by high fences with razor wire, checkpoints, Humvees and National Guard troops wearing camouflage.
“When you are able to get yourself back into the head space of that day, it’s stunning what happened,” said Sarbanes, a Democrat whose district — redrawn as part of last spring’s redistricting process — is to include Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel and Carroll counties in 2023.
On Jan. 6, Sarbanes sheltered in an inner office inside the Rayburn House Office Building where he said he was “watching on television and seeing all this chaos happening outside the Capitol.” He was by himself because his staff was working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s worth it for us to remember how we felt on that day,” Sarbanes said. “And why we need to do everything we can to make sure that this particular part of how our democracy operates — the peaceful transfer of power — is something that we have fortified as best we can.”
The presidential election measure would update a 19th century law and clarify that the vice president’s role is administrative and that he or she can’t settle disputes over electors. In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, Trump openly pressured Pence to reject slates of votes for Biden that had been certified by states.
Had Pence sided with Trump, the nation could have been plunged into uncertainty over who would be president. But Pence declined to block the count, saying he lacked authority. Biden was sworn in two weeks later.
The bill also boosts the ability of courts to become involved if state officials refuse to finalize their election results, and increases the congressional threshold for objecting to slates of electors.
Currently, a single member of the U.S. House and Senate can stall the proceedings by formally objecting.
The Senate bill requires that one-fifth of both chambers would be needed to object. A House-passed bill is more stringent, raising the requirement to one-third of members. The differences would need to be resolved before the measure could receive final approval and be sent to the White House for Biden’s signature.
The House passed its version in September.
“This bill will make it harder to convince people that they have the right to overthrow the election,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the measure, as the House considered it.
Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, who led the GOP opposition, said on the floor that the bill was a partisan overreaction to Democratic claims of “some kind of mass conspiracy by Republicans to stage a coup.”
Democrats, Davis said at the time, “have allowed their dislike for one man, President Trump, to cloud their judgment and guide their actions.”
The bill passed the House 229-203, with all but nine Republicans voting against it.
Maryland’s seven Democratic members voted in favor, and Republican Rep. Andy Harris, whose district includes Harford County and the Eastern Shore, opposed it.
Maryland Policy & Politics
On Jan. 6, Harris had argued in support of Trump’s contention that some state-certified results must not be counted because of unproven allegations of election fraud. Harris voted in favor of two objections to Biden’s victory — one related to results in Pennsylvania and another tied to the count in Arizona. Maryland’s other representatives voted against the challenges.
In the Senate, Democrats say they soon may attach the electoral results legislation to a large spending measure called an “omnibus” bill to try to speed its passage, which is not guaranteed.
As the second Jan. 6 anniversary approaches, Cardin said he still vividly recalls the details of that day. “It’s personal,” he said.
While most of those memories are troubling, one makes him smile.
Huddled in an undisclosed room for safety, the senator said he called his wife, Myrna, “and told her I was safe but that ‘I can’t tell you where we are.’”
But when he checked back in later, she said “‘I know where you are,’” Cardin said.
“I said ‘How?’ And she said ‘Your granddaughter has a locator on your phone.’”