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Internal GOP conflicts about 2020 election surface as party fights new voting bills

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are attempting to reframe the "big lie" as an attack on voting rights legislation pushed by Democrats.
J. Scott Applewhite
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are attempting to reframe the "big lie" as an attack on voting rights legislation pushed by Democrats.

Democrats plan to force votes this week on a package of voting rights legislationthat is meant to make a public example of Republican opposition to election protections.

The legislation has virtually no path to becoming law, but the debate itself is again drawing attention to the battle among Republicans over whether to move on from the 2020 election and lies about who won.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Senate Republicans have focused their objections to the voting legislation on arguments about protecting constitutional powers and Senate rules. But that message has been consistently undermined by former President Donald Trump and his allies, who continue to center any talk of election security around false conspiracies that the 2020 election was plagued with fraud.

McConnell has stuck to a clear script. He says voters felt that participating in the 2020 election was easy and Democrats are creating false fears about the election as an excuse for a power grab.

"This is misinformation," McConnell said in a speech on the Senate floor. "It is a big lie designed to reduce faith in our democracy, justify a top down election takeover and justify smashing the Senate itself."

Republicans attempt to reframe the "big lie"

Part of that message has involved an effort to redefine the popular definition of the term "big lie" to focus attention away from Republicans, like Trump, who say falsely that the last election was stolen.

It is a move that is infuriating top Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has accused McConnell of trying to rewrite history and ignore the harms caused as some in their party continue to insist the 2020 election was rigged.

"He says Democrats have the 'big lie.' That's gaslighting," Schumer told reporters in the Capitol this week. "What McConnell did on the 'big lie' is the classic definition of gaslighting."

The term "big lie" became a part of the recent political lexicon shortly after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Then-President-elect Biden compared Republican senators to Nazi propagandists for promoting lies about the election.

McConnell isn't alone in attempting to change that understanding.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate GOP campaign effort, repeated the phrase Tuesday on a call with reporters.

"The entire Democrat Party from Biden on down is just engaged in an absolutely big lie when it comes to election reform," Scott said. "The Democrat big lie is that any election reforms suggested by Republicans are intended to suppress voters from voting in our races."

Democrats have called the message a deliberate attempt to distract from changes to voting laws that have been passed by some Republican state legislatures following the 2020 election. Democrats also point to ongoing concerns raised by voters of color in particular that new laws could inhibit their access to voting.

Senate Republicans defend 2020 as Trump continues lying about the results

McConnell's message that the 2020 election went smoothly puts him at direct odds with Trump, who continues to spread conspiracies about the outcome and attacks members of his own party who disagree.

Republicans' internal struggle has been in the public eye throughout the voting rights debate. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., became the latest target of Trump's attacks following an interview last Sunday on ABC's This Week.

Rounds was asked how he responds to members of his party who promote the lie that the election was rigged.

"The election was fair, as fair as we have seen," Rounds said. "We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency."

Trump responded with a statement calling Rounds a "jerk" and reasserting false claims about the election.

Some Senate Republicans, including McConnell, defended Rounds against the attacks, prompting even more ire from Trump, including in an interview with NPR.

Trump's pressure on Republicans is the entire reason that Democrats feel they need to pass new voting protections. They say Republican states have moved to restrict voting access since 2020 and Congress must act to prevent any further erosion of election rights.

"Our argument is what they're doing now is going to make 2022 a very unfair election," Schumer told reporters.

Voting rights and Senate rules

But McConnell says the fight about election laws isn't just about preventing federal intervention in state laws or even ballot access.

Republicans say Democrats want to pass federal voting laws that would tilt laws in their favor — things like universal mail-in balloting and making Election Day a federal holiday. Republicans also say Democrats' efforts to change Senate rules to pass these laws amounts to a power grab that would undermine democracy and the American system of checks and balances.

Biden joined most Senate Democrats this week to support adjusting the impact of the filibuster, the rule that requires 60 votes on a procedural measure before the Senate can begin or end debate on most legislation. Democrats are considering several proposals to achieve that goal and Republicans reject all of them.

Republicans say many Democrats, including Schumer and his top deputies, wrote letters opposing Senate rules changes when they were the minority party, only to turn around and support them.

And the fight has become personal as McConnell has accused Biden of abandoning his promises and principles to pursue the voting bills.

"Twelve months ago this president said disagreement must not lead to disunion," McConnell said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "Ah, but yesterday he invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War."

By going after the president, McConnell is trying to draw the focus away from Trump and make Democrats the enemy.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.