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Sen. Susan Collins walks into the Capitol basement Wednesday with fellow Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A new bipartisan Senate group is in early discussions about crafting an election reform measure, as the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights proposals continue to run into steep procedural hurdles.

Driving the news: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) convened a Zoom call late Wednesday afternoon as a cross-section of lawmakers from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have expressed openness to reforming the outdated bill.

  • A person familiar with the call characterized it as a "wide-ranging discussion of election issues," including the option to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify the role the vice president and Congress play in certifying presidential elections.
  • Besides Collins, the participants were Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the person told Axios.

Why it matters: The discussion came on the eve of the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack, the culmination of former President Trump’s efforts to take advantage of ambiguities in the bill to challenge the 2020 election results.

  • In particular, the Electoral Count Act doesn’t specify if the vice president is merely ceremonial or if the VP actually has the power to refuse to certify certain electors, as Axios reported Tuesday.

What we're watching: The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer remain focused exclusively on passing their own voting rights legislation.

  • White House spokesman Andrew Bates told Axios: "The president has been crystal clear that the pending voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are essential for protecting the constitutional right to vote, the rule of law and the integrity of our elections against un-American attacks based on the Big Lie."
  • "There is no substitute. Period."
  • President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Georgia next Tuesday to make the case for federal voting rights legislation, the White House announced.

Proponents of reform say the Jan. 6 insurrection made clear the need to close loopholes that could be exploited in the future.

  • Collins told Axios before the meeting: "I would like personally to see the language change, so that it's clear that the vice president is performing just the ministerial role and does not have the authority to change our block counts from states."
  • Kaine, who's been heavily involved in Democrats' voting reform talks, told Axios that a standalone Electoral Count Act bill is "not even 5% of what we need to do on voting, but it would be a good thing."
  • "I do think it needs to be reformed," Shaheen said before the Zoom call. "I don't think that addresses voting rights. I think we should get whatever done we can."

But, but, but: Some Democrats are concerned making changes to the Electoral Count Act would reduce the urgency to pass federal voting rights bills.

  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), a key figure in Democrats' voting rights push, said a narrow Electoral Count Act reform bill would be a "distraction" and a "cynical political maneuver by people who are trying to rig the elections in our country."
  • Adam Bozzi, a spokesperson for End Citizens United, told Axios: "This feels like a GOP stall tactic. ... Claiming that they would 'negotiate' on a small part of the bill to slow movement overall is part of their playbook."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to identify Joe Manchin as a Democrat, not a Republican.

Go deeper

Pence: "Tragic" Jan. 6 no reason to scrap filibuster

Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Friday called the Jan. 6 Capitol riot an attempt to "overturn results of the presidential election that had been certified by all 50 states."

Why it matters: Though the former vice president's op-ed in the Washington Post focuses on rebutting filibuster reforms, these are also the most public statements Pence has made about the post-election narrative and the attack as an effort to interfere with President Biden's victory.

2 hours ago - World

Biden will move U.S. troops to Eastern Europe "in the near term"

President Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews on Jan. 28. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said on Friday he plans to move U.S. troops to Eastern European and NATO countries “in the near term.”

Driving the news: “Not too many” U.S. troops, Biden added in remarks to reporters at Joint Base Andrew upon returning from a trip to Pennsylvania. 

Updated 2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Bomb cyclone prompts blizzard warnings from Virginia to Maine

Computer model projection showing the intense storm off of Cape Cod on Jan 29, 2022, with heavy snow and strong winds lashing the coastline. (Weatherbell.com)

Blizzard warnings are in effect for 11 million people from coastal Virginia to eastern Maine as a potentially historic winter storm is set to slam the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast beginning Friday.

Why it matters: The storm will bring hazards ranging from zero visibility amid hurricane force wind gusts and heavy snow, to coastal flooding that will erode vulnerable beaches and threaten property from the Jersey shore to coastal Massachusetts.