President Trump has once again slashed a dividing line through the heart of the Republican Party with his demand that lawmakers reject the results of the Nov. 3 election, but this time the pushback is stronger.
Many erstwhile Trump allies say he has finally gone too far and asked too much. Seeking to upend President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s victory threatens the very foundations of America’s electoral democracy, they say.
“I don’t see in the Constitution where we actually have that authority, quite honestly, and I read it again this morning to be sure,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, North Dakota Republican, told CNBC on Monday.
Desperate to remain in office and convinced, despite a lack of evidence, that the election was stolen from him, Mr. Trump has asked Congress to reject the electoral votes of some states he lost to Mr. Biden and to deliver a second term to him.
On Monday, he labeled his Republican opponents the “Surrender Caucus” and vowed that electoral retribution would befall them.
It was the latest in a string of with-me-or-against-me moments Mr. Trump has foisted upon members of his party. He has been remarkably successful in holding the line before, but not this time.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican viewed on Capitol Hill as a close Trump ally, announced Sunday that he would oppose the president’s push.
He said that while he shares questions about voting “irregularities,” what Mr. Trump is asking goes beyond the powers of Congress and sets a dangerous precedent for lawmakers to ignore the will of voters.
“I’m grateful for what the president accomplished over the past four years, which is why I campaigned vigorously for his reelection. But objecting to certified electoral votes won’t give him a second term — it will only embolden those Democrats who want to erode further our system of constitutional government,” Mr. Cotton said.
Another Trump ally, Rep. Tom McClintock of California, said, “If the Founders had intended to give this power to the Congress, why did they go to all the fuss and bother of designing an Electoral College at all?”
A month ago, Mr. McClintock was one of 126 Republicans who signed on to a court brief backing a Supreme Court challenge to the Electoral College count showing Mr. Biden as the victor.
But Mr. McClintock said that was where it ended. Mr. Trump lost his case in the courts, and despite continued misgivings over the way some states changed election rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be courting chaos for Congress to intervene.
“No one has ever claimed that ours is a perfect system. It is merely the best we have yet been able to design. And until we come up with something better, we owe it to our country, our Constitution and our posterity to stand by it and to respect its outcome, despite our wishes and suspicions,” Mr. McClintock wrote.
Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, called the objections “a dangerous path to go down.”
“I have more faith in the Electoral College than I do my colleagues here in terms of choosing a president,” he said.
What Mr. Trump is attempting is not without precedent.
Congress most recently fought over disputed slates of electoral votes in 2005, when Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones led an attempt to reject Ohio’s votes, which would have cost President George W. Bush reelection.
Even John F. Kerry, Mr. Bush’s Democratic opponent, disavowed the effort. Also speaking against it was newly elected Sen. Barack Obama, who, while sympathizing with the “Boxer rebellion,” said there was no doubt Mr. Bush won the contest.
The House voted 267-31 and the Senate voted 74-1 to reject Mrs. Boxer’s effort.
Republicans were unanimous in condemning the senator for her attempt.
“Hijacking a presidential election to use as a personal soapbox is shameful,” Sen. Mitch McConnell said in remarks memorialized on page S56 of the 2005 Congressional Record.
Now the Republican leader in the Senate, Mr. McConnell faces at least a dozen of his own troops defying him to lodge objections.
The dividing line runs through the heart of the field of future Republican presidential hopefuls. Mr. Cotton is the most prominent potential candidate on the pro-electoral side, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri lead the anti-electoral rebellion — along with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Hawley, the first senator to announce his objection, said the issue went beyond the current president.
He said he felt compelled to raise objections to the way states such as Pennsylvania “failed to follow their own state election laws.” Pennsylvania state law imposes a deadline for receiving ballots, but the secretary of state allowed a more lenient deadline for November’s count.
Trump defenders say that violates the Constitution’s declaration that electors should be chosen in a manner set by state legislatures.
“This is my one opportunity of this process to stand and be heard,” Mr. Hawley told reporters Friday.
Objecting to certifying the electoral vote count, which requires at least one member of the House and one member of the Senate, automatically starts a debate in both chambers.
Each chamber will then vote on the objection.
According to the electoral votes cast last month, Mr. Biden won 306 and Mr. Trump won 232.
Mr. Hawley and a group of senators led by Mr. Cruz are calling for an investigation into voting irregularities before the results are certified.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist, said Republican voters are likely to support the fight.
“Obviously, the base of the Republican Party is in lockstep with Trump. They believe this election was stolen from them,” he said.
That feeling goes beyond the vote counting to include disparate media treatment of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden and the role large social media companies played in censoring Republicans.
“I think Josh Hawley has a brilliant argument to make,” he said. “All we’re talking about is having a debate on the floor.”
It remains to be seen whether the Trump division has staying power.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican Party strategist, said he suspects it will be limited.
“While some will remember this week, it’s highly unlikely it will be a lasting effect among a majority of Republicans because they will have to be focused on taking back the White House and showing how they would lead differently,” he said. “However, this could become a flashpoint in Republican primaries that some may have to handle.”
Mr. Massie, the congressman from Kentucky, also said he doubts the division will reverberate.
“I don’t think this is indicative of the internal struggle that the GOP is going to have for the next two and four years,” he said.
He said the party is facing more philosophical battles that Mr. Trump helped foster over trade, immigration policy and how expansive a role the U.S. should play in policing the globe.
“I think those will be the divides,” he said.