WASHINGTON (AP) -- A growing number of Republican lawmakers are joining President Donald Trump's extraordinary effort to overturn the election, pledging to reject the results when Congress meets next week to count the Electoral College votes and certify President-elect Joe Biden's win.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on Saturday announced a coalition of 11 senators and senators-elect who have been enlisted for Trump's effort to subvert the will of American voters.
This follows the declaration from Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who was the first to buck Senate leadership by saying he would join with House Republicans in objecting to the state tallies during Wednesday's joint session of Congress.
Trump's refusal to accept his defeat is tearing the party apart as Republicans are forced to make consequential choices that will set the contours of the post-Trump era. Hawley and Cruz are both among potential 2024 presidential contenders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had urged his party not to try to overturn what nonpartisan election officials have concluded was a free and fair vote.
The 11 senators largely acknowledged Saturday they will not succeed in preventing Biden from being inaugurated on Jan. 20 after he won the Electoral College 306-232. But their challenges, and those from House Republicans, represent the most sweeping effort to undo a presidential election outcome since the Civil War.
“We do not take this action lightly,” Cruz and the other senators said in a joint statement.
They vowed to vote against certain state electors on Wednesday unless Congress appoints an electoral commission to immediately conduct an audit of the election results. They are zeroing in on the states where Trump has raised unfounded claims of voter fraud. Congress is unlikely to agree to their demand.
The group, which presented no new evidence of election problems, includes Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Steve Daines of Montana, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Mike Braun of Indiana, and Sens.-elect Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
Biden's transition spokesman, Mike Gwin, dismissed the effort as a “stunt” that won't change the fact that Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20.
Trump, the first president to lose a reelection bid in almost 30 years, has attributed his defeat to widespread voter fraud, despite the consensus of nonpartisan election officials and even Trump's attorney general that there was none. Of the roughly 50 lawsuits the president and his allies have filed challenging election results, nearly all have been dismissed or dropped. He's also lost twice at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The days ahead are expected to do little to change the outcome.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the panel overseeing the Electoral College count. said the Republican effort to create a federal commission “to supersede state certifications" is wrong.
“It is undemocratic. It is un-American. And fortunately it will be unsuccessful. In the end, democracy will prevail,” she said in a statement.
The convening of the joint session to count the Electoral College votes is usually routine. While objections have surfaced before — in 2017, several House Democrats challenged Trump's win — few have approached this level of intensity.
On the other side of the Republican divide, several senators spoke out Saturday against Cruz and Hawley's effort.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement that she will vote to affirm the election and urged colleagues in both parties to join her in “maintaining confidence" in elections "so that we ensure we have the continued trust of the American people.”
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said a “fundamental, defining feature of a democratic republic is the right of the people to elect their own leaders.” He said the effort by Hawley, Cruz and others “to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in swing states like Pennsylvania directly undermines this right.”
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah called the Cruz-led effort an “ill-conceived endeavor" and said Trump's call for supporters to converge on the Capitol had “the predictable potential to lead to disruption, and worse.” He added: “I could never have imagined seeing these things in the greatest democracy in the world. Has ambition so eclipsed principle?”
Earlier this week, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, another possible 2024 contender, urged his colleagues to “reject this dangerous ploy,” which he said threatens the nation's civic norms.
Caught in the middle is Vice President Mike Pence, who faces growing pressure from Trump's allies over his ceremonial role in presiding over the session Wednesday. His chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement Saturday that Pence “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections.”
Several Republicans have indicated they are under pressure from constituents back home to show they are fighting for Trump in his baseless campaign to stay in office.
Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican, told reporters at the Capitol that leadership was allowing senators to “vote their conscience.”
Thune's remarks as the GOP whip in charge of rounding up votes show that Republican leadership is not putting its muscle behind Trump's demands, but allowing senators to choose their course. He noted the gravity of questioning the election outcome.
“This is an issue that's incredibly consequential, incredibly rare historically and very precedent-setting,” he said. “This is a big vote.”
Pence will be carefully watched as he presides over what is typically a routine vote count in Congress but is now heading toward a prolonged showdown that could extend into Wednesday night, depending on how many challenges are mounted.
The latest failed effort to upend the election came from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and a group of Arizona electors, who filed suit to try to force Pence to step outside mere ceremony and shape the outcome of the vote. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Kernodle, a Trump appointee, dismissed their suit late Friday. In another blow, Gohmert's appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was rejected Saturday night, the panel of judges agreeing with Kernodle's ruling that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the suit.
To ward off a dramatic unraveling, McConnell convened a conference call with Republican senators Thursday specifically to address the coming joint session and logistics of tallying the vote, according to several Republicans granted anonymity to discuss the private call.
The Republican leader pointedly called on Hawley to answer questions about his challenge to Biden's victory, according to two of the Republicans.
But there was no response because Hawley was a no-show, the Republicans said.
Hawley's office said he sent an email afterward to his colleagues explaining his views. In the email, Hawley said constituents back home are “angry and disillusioned” with the outcome of the election.
McConnell had previously warned GOP senators not to participate in raising objections, saying it would be a terrible vote for colleagues. In essence, lawmakers would be forced to choose between the will of the outgoing president and that of the voters.