The 117th session of Congress was first convened on Jan. 3, 2021, just days before two Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Osoff (D-Ga.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), won runoff elections in Georgia. That gave Democrats the slimmest majority in the Senate, with 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, along with Vice President Kamala Harris (D) to break tie votes in her constitutional role as Senate president.
In the first year of the 117th session, the Senate became embroiled in determining appropriate legislative responses to the violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which interrupted its own proceedings, led to loss of life, and shook the foundations of democracy—including the assurance of free and fair elections and the peaceful transition of presidential power.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) served as Senate majority leader with Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) serving as minority leader. Despite major setbacks for Democrats early in the session, the Senate nonetheless passed many substantial bills in 2021 and 2022, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2022, the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 in support of veterans, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, the Social Security Fairness Act of 2021, the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, the antitrust legislation titled the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, and the terrorism prevention measure called the See Something, Say Something Online Act.
January 6, 2021
- The Senate participated in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6 to certify the results of the Electoral College, typically a ceremonial formality. However, just hours after a mob of Trump supporters violently attacked the Capitol and disrupted the session, eight Republican senators voted against certifying President Biden’s legitimate win of the election. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Roger Marshall (R-Ks.), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) all voted against certification and are still serving in the Senate. Cruz raised the objection to Arizona’s electors before it was defeated by a vote of 93–6. Hawley raised the Pennsylvania objection, which was rejected 92–7.
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch MConnell (R-Ky.) blocked the formation of a bicameral commission to investigate the background, planning, events, and impact of the Jan. 6 insurrection. In announcing his opposition to the bill days before the vote was scheduled, he demanded that all other Republicans follow suit. Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), the minority whip, also expressed his opposition, saying, “Anything that gets us rehashing the 2020 elections I think is a day lost on being able to draw a contrast between us and the Democrats’ very radical left-wing agenda.”
- In June 2021, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs and the Committee on Rules and Administration released a bipartisan report on security failings that exacerbated the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. It identified numerous communication failures between multiple intelligence and military agencies.
The Big Lie
- Several senators actively continued to spread lies about election fraud through floor speeches once Congress reconvened on Jan. 6 to resume the Electoral College certification process. Senator Hawley said, “What we are doing here tonight is actually very important because for those who have concerns about the integrity of our elections, those who have concerns about what happened in November, this is the appropriate means, this is the lawful place where those objections and concerns should be raised.” Meanwhile, Senator Cruz added, “I urge you to pause and think, what does it say to the nearly half the country that believes this election was rigged if we vote not even to consider the claims of illegality and fraud in this election?”
- Democratic senators used floor speeches to respond to the continued election lies promulgated by their Republican colleagues. On Dec. 11, 2020, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that “as we speak, a whole lot of flag-waving Republicans are nakedly trying to invalidate millions of legal votes because that is the only way that they can make Donald Trump president again… because he didn’t win.” Meanwhile, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) took to the Senate floor on Jan. 6, 2021 to say, “We talk to the world about how we want to promote democracy and our values, and right here at home, too many are undermining those values…. Donald Trump could not do this alone. He could only do it if he’s aided and abetted by individuals who are willing to perpetrate those lies and those conspiracies.”
- In September 2022, McConnell announced that he would support legislation to amend the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which enabled the Presidential Election Reform Act to pass, even though only nine House Republicans supported it. However, he emphasized that he was supporting the legislation because it represented “modest” and “technical” changes that did not create sweeping progressive reforms.
- An analysis by CNN found that more than half of GOP nominees for the 35 contested Senate seats in the 2022 midterm elections rejected the results of the 2020 election and/or took steps to overturn President Biden’s victory. Election denial candidates included Blake Masters (R) in Arizona, who said “the 2020 election wasn’t free or fair,” and Herschel Walker (R) in Georgia, who said he wants to find out “who stole this election.” Both candidates lost to their Democratic opponents.