Political Pulse: Coming to terms – or not – with Jan. 6
The anniversary of last January’s violent attacks on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Donald Trump rioters has, unfortunately, highlighted how this country’s already gaping political divide has somehow widened.
Polls suggest that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on what to call the deadly violence and who is to blame, much less who won the 2020 election.
Here in Maine, a little-noticed vote at the State House this past week underscores that political divide.
One day before the anniversary, Democrats and Republicans in the Maine House fell largely along party lines when presented with a resolution “commemorating the January 6th insurrection.”
The resolution, which was introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson, a Democrat, talked about how on Jan. 6, 2021, “a group of insurgents violently stormed the United States Capitol in an act of domestic terrorism with the intent to disrupt and prevent the certification of the 2020 Electoral College results.”
It mentions the 140 law enforcement personnel who were injured during the riot and how “this act of domestic terrorism” represented a threat to the Constitution, elections and democracy itself. And the resolution ends by honoring law enforcement and pledging to protect “free and fair elections.”
The resolution breezed through the Maine Senate without discussion. But a few Republican House members objected to the terminology — and to what they (members of the self-proclaimed Law-and-Order and Back-the-Blue party) saw as a Democratic “fluff piece.”
“I am proud of the very long record that we as Republicans have of supporting law enforcement officers locally and abroad. I cannot support this piece of political rhetoric disguised as support for law enforcement,” said Rep. Joel Stetkis of Canaan, who is the assistant Republican leader in the House.
Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, pointed out no one has been convicted of “domestic terrorism” among the hundreds of people charged in the riot.
“Therefore, with all due respect to the President of the Senate, I think this is a fluff piece and never should have seen the light of day,” O’Connor said.
Jan. 6 denialism?
O’Connor is correct on the domestic terrorism convictions, although that phrase has been used repeatedly by federal officials and prosecutors.
FBI officials refer to “domestic violent extremists” when talking about the “siege” of the Capitol, and anyone who has watched videos of pro-Trump loyalists severely beating Capitol police officers, using American flags as spears and parading around the building in flak jackets and zip-tie handcuffs can see these weren’t peaceful protesters.
An article published this week by Politico suggests that prosecutors have been loath to pursue “domestic terrorism” charges because they carry much stiffer punishments, typically adding about 15 years to a prison sentence.
“In front of judges and in court filings, the Justice Department is engaged in a delicate rhetorical dance on the domestic terrorism issue,” wrote Politico’s Josh Gerstein. “Seeking to satisfy a large swath of the public outraged by the Jan. 6 riot, prosecutors have declared that the event ‘certainly’ qualifies as domestic terrorism. But they’ve kept their powder dry thus far on invoking the terrorism sentencing boost — potentially because its impact can be so severe.”
More than 700 people, including several from Maine, have been charged with crimes related to the storming of the Capitol.
Ongoing tracking of those cases by NPR has found that, as of earlier this week, 173 people had pleaded guilty to charges and 74 people had been sentenced. The majority of those did not receive any jail time, but among those who did, the average sentence was 115 days.
In the end, the resolution passed the House on a vote of 77-49. Every Democrat as well as two independents and five Republicans supported the sentiment. All 49 votes against the resolution were cast by Republicans.
It’s also worth noting that some members of the GOP have engaged in outright denialism about who participated in the attempted insurrection and the violence that took place there. Before cleaning crews could clear the detritus, Republican members of Congress were baselessly laying blame of the attack on liberal agitators who somehow infiltrated the far-right groups and the ranks of QAnon adherents who attempted to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election. This belief metastasized on social media after beloved conservative TV personalities like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham repeated the same claim. According to analytics, mentions of the leftist Antifa on GOP social media platforms like Gab and Parler skyrocketed in the early morning hours after Jan. 6.
Some Maine Republican politicians amplified these views, including Stetkis, who last year chastised a fellow conservative on Facebook who had expressed disgust at the attack.
“This has Antifa and anarchist written all over it,” Stetkis wrote in one post. “This is a well-known tactic used for decades, infiltrate peaceful groups as cover and then cause all the destruction you can as they get the blame.”
There is no evidence to suggest that the Antifa-did-it narrative is remotely grounded in reality. In fact, many of the rioters facing federal charges have said that they felt like they were sent to the Capitol by Trump himself.
Fig leaf or bait?
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has made it clear that she will not support Democrat-backed voting rights bills and has previously called such proposals federal takeovers of state elections.
More recently, she described Democrats’ rhetoric accompanying such bills as “harmful alarmism”.
But this week Collins has reportedly signaled a willingness to clarify the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a law that outlines how electoral votes are counted and certified in a presidential election. It’s the same law that former President Trump and his allies suggested gave former Vice President Mike Pence the power to reject electoral vote counts from the swing states he lost in 2020. Legal scholars, including Republican-leaning ones, largely reject this view. So did Pence, which is why some of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol a year ago were calling for his hanging.
According to Axios, Collins convened a Zoom call this week with centrist Democrats and Republicans to discuss clearing up any ambiguity in the Electoral Count Act. She told Axios, “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.”
That comment is at odds with a previous Axios report saying that Collins is OK with the current iteration of the Electoral Count Act.
Nevertheless, some Democrats are dismissing some Republicans’ sudden interest in the Electoral Count Act as a tactic to peel off centrist Democrats from more sweeping voting proposals like the Freedom to Vote Act.
Marc Elias, a voting rights lawyer who has represented the Democratic National Committee and led the Biden campaign’s legal fight against Trump’s court challenges to the 2020 presidential election, noted on his website that the Electoral Count Act needs reform. However, he added, “The idea that we can fix democracy simply by revising this one law is simplistic and wrong. It ignores the fact that election subversion begins with the rules used for voting and continues through state certification processes. It also ignores the reality that presidential elections are not the only ones being targeted for subversion.”
Elias also suggested on Twitter that the GOP interest in clearing up any ambiguity in the Electoral Count Act was a ploy to convince the Democratic majority to drop other voting proposals.
Still, given that some centrist Democrats have been reluctant to blow up the Senate filibuster rule, a bipartisan overhaul of the law might be the best chance Democrats have to pass any voting bills this year.
Mills eyes State of State
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is tentatively planning to give her annual address to the Legislature during the final week of January.
No firm date has been set and a spokesperson for her office said it has not yet been determined whether the address will be delivered in-person, before a joint convention of the Legislature, or through video. Last year the governor gave her annual address by video because of the pandemic.
Her address will likely be tied to the release of her supplemental budget proposal, an issue likely to generate debate with the Republican minority, which has called for delivering a significant portion of the state’s realized, and projected, budget surplus directly to Mainers.
Mills has repeatedly signaled a willingness to do the same, but the type of relief, and how much of it, is expected to be a point of contention.
Additionally, Mills has said policymakers should be cautious because a significant portion of the surplus is forecasted and could be revised downward if the pandemic forces another economic downturn.
Below is a round-up of a few potentially newsworthy or noteworthy items coming up next week in the Legislature, in Congress or elsewhere in Maine politics:
- No mandatory COVID vaccines: On Tuesday, the Health and Human Services Committee will hear public comments on a bill, LD 867, that would prohibit a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for five years. The bill is unlikely to pass, given the current political climate and the strong support (in some left-leaning some sectors) for a vaccine mandate. But it’ll generate robust debate.
- Election integrity: The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on LD 1779, which aims to tighten Maine’s ballot access and security law. The bill is a Democratic response to the election result “audits” performed or sought by Trump backers in some other states (and proposed by some Republicans in Maine).
- Constitutional amendments: On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Maine’s Constitution explicitly prohibiting the state or any other “political subdivision” from discrimination based on a person’s sex. Maine ratified an ERA for the U.S. Constitution years ago but lacks language in the state Constitution. And on Thursday, the committee will hold a work session on a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to privacy.
- Briefings: Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah will talk to the HHS Committee about COVID and other issues on Thursday. He’ll be followed by the Mills administration’s drug czar, Gordon Smith, who will discuss the other public health crisis in Maine: the opioid epidemic. The Marine Resources Committee, meanwhile, will hear an update Tuesday on climate change from the scientific subcommittee of the Maine Climate Council.
Voting rights & the filibuster: Expect lots of talk in Washington next week about the Democrats’ voting rights bill and potential changes to the Senate filibuster as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pushes for a vote on the voting bill by Jan. 17. U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, has already signaled he is open to a narrow change to the filibuster for voting rights issues while Collins is opposed.
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