Jun 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Jan. 6 committee's private divide

Illustration of the US Capitol Building with many different thought and speech bubbles.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The House's Jan. 6 committee has split behind the scenes over what actions to take after the public hearings: Some members want big changes on voting rights — and even to abolish the Electoral College — while others are resisting proposals to overhaul the U.S. election system, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Televised hearings begin Thursday night. Committee members are in lockstep about capturing Americans' attention by unfurling a mountain of evidence connecting former President Trump and those close to him with the attack on the Capitol.

  • But the committee's legacy depends in large part on what reforms it pursues after those hearings to prevent another Jan. 6 from happening — and that's where the united front breaks down.

The big picture: Disagreements arise whenever proposals are raised such as abolishing the Electoral College, vastly expanding voting rights like same-day registration or tightening the Insurrection Act to make it harder for a president to deploy the military domestically for use on civilians.

Behind the scenes: Nobody on the House select committee is more committed than Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) to pursuing Trump for inciting the attack on the Capitol. But she flatly opposes some of the more sweeping election law reforms backed by several committee Democrats.

  • The broadest differences are between Cheney and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), according to three sources familiar with the committee's private discussions. The two have a warm personal relationship but fundamentally disagree on what needs to be done to reform America's election laws.
  • Raskin, a former constitutional law scholar, is by far the committee's most outspoken member during its private discussions about voting rights.
  • "Liz is much more conservative, as far as what kinds of changes she wants to see done," said a source with direct knowledge of their conversations.

Between the lines: Committee members know it's going to be extremely hard to get unanimous agreement on the legislative recommendations in their final report. So they've deferred those decisions.

  • They've focused instead on completing the investigation and preparing for the public hearings beginning Thursday at 8pm ET.
  • A source with direct knowledge said the committee is "trying to preserve the unanimity that we've had to date, so that we can go into the hearings and just get through the hearings, and then tackle the hard stuff on the other side."
  • "We do recognize that there are significant differences [in legislative recommendations] that we're going to have to work through because everybody has to sign the final report," the source added.

In multiple conversations among committee members, Raskin has argued that the Electoral College should be abolished — that if presidents were elected by a popular vote, this would protect future presidential elections against the subversion that Trump and his allies tried to pull off in 2020.

  • Trump and some of his lawyers, including Rudy Giuliani, pressured Republican lawmakers in closely contested states to send alternate slates of electors to Washington, in their failed effort to overturn Joe Biden's victory.

Cheney thinks the committee will burn its credibility if it pushes for radical changes like abolishing the Electoral College, according to a source with direct knowledge.

  • She also has joked to her colleagues on the committee that there's no way the single at-large representative for the tiny state of Wyoming would support abolishing the Electoral College, according to another source with direct knowledge of the internal committee deliberations.
  • Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has spoken up in the committee to concur with Raskin on the problems with the Electoral College, that same source added. However, Schiff is far more focused on changes to the Electoral Count Act — a reform that is much more likely for the committee members to agree upon.

Raskin also has pushed for the committee to endorse "federal legislation to oppose voter suppression tactics and gerrymandering," according to a source familiar with his comments to his committee colleagues.

  • He has been an outspoken supporter of the Democratic Party's major voting rights bills — the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
  • Cheney is open to discussing reforms to the Electoral Count Act — the law that Trump tried to exploit to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to illegally overturn the election — but has no interest in the Democratic Party's sweeping voting rights bills.
  • Cheney has also discussed enhancing criminal penalties for "supreme dereliction of duty" and other types of activities Trump engaged in, such as pressuring state officials, according to a source with direct knowledge.

Other Democrats on the committee agree with Raskin on much of the substance of this legislation. All committee Democrats, for example, voted for the For the People Act in the House.

  • But in internal committee conversations, Raskin's colleagues haven't been as vocal as he has in advocating for the most sweeping reforms.
  • Several committee members view this conversation as premature and impractical because there are so many other tasks the committee needs to accomplish and they're nowhere close to agreement on legislative recommendations.

What's next: Jan. 6 committee members have privately discussed other potential legislative recommendations, though nothing has been decided.

  • Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) has argued for legislation to improve coordination among intelligence and security agencies, similar to what happened after 9/11, according to a source with direct knowledge.
  • Murphy has also argued the committee should explore strengthening sentencing and punishment for seditious conspiracy and insurrection.
  • Cheney and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) have been collaborating on reforms to the Electoral Count Act, according to a House aide familiar with the details.

For the committee to be successful, "it has to look at all the ways in which somebody with the will can subvert the law," said a source familiar with the committee's internal conversations, because "our Constitution and our laws ... depend on people of good integrity seeking public office and being unwilling to go there."

  • "We have to identify all the areas in which ... there are loopholes" that a future president with the same motives as Trump might try exploiting to overturn an election, the source said.

The bottom line: The longer the Jan. 6 committee postpones making legislative recommendations, the less likely those recommendations are to pass.

  • There's a finite number of days on the Senate calendar, and if Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) becomes speaker next year, he's not going to do anything this committee recommends.
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