‘Wrecking ball to the American political structure’: Insurrection in D.C. further divides Pa. pols

Pro-Trump insurrectionists try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

Pro-Trump insurrectionists try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The day after a violent mob of insurrectionists supporting President Donald Trump seized the U.S. Capitol to thwart the will of voters, lawmakers in Pennsylvania — a state at the center of baseless election fraud claims — are trying to figure out where to go from here.

Less than two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated, fractures in Pennsylvania’s evenly split congressional delegation have widened.

“We have, in the past, tried really hard to be cordial,” said Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat from the Lehigh Valley. “We’re 18 members, we reflect a very purple state … last night was just discouraging.”

In both the commonwealth’s congressional delegation, and in its GOP-controlled state House and Senate, many Republicans have clung to theories of election impropriety that have been repeatedly debunked in court.

Though congress ultimately confirmed Joe Biden as the winner of the election, eight of Pennsylvaia’s GOP House members voted against their own state’s slate of electors, a move formally led by Rep. Scott Perry (PA-10).

Top Republican leaders in the state House and Senate all signed letters urging them to take those votes. At least one GOP state Senator, Doug Mastriano, was among the crowd of Trump supporters who gathered in D.C. The Franklin County-native denied joining the riot at the Capitol, but colleagues are calling for his resignation.

Waking up from the chaos of Wednesday, some moderate Republicans, like former Pennsylvania GOP Congressman Charlie Dent, say it’s beyond clear the GOP let things go too far.

“It’s obvious they’re concerned about primary pressure and the president causing them future political trouble,” he said of the congressional members who voted to reject states’ electors. “It is long past time for anybody to enable this president’s unhealthy and undemocratic obsession about the election.”

Dent, who used to hold the same purple congressional seat that Wild now occupies, still places the bulk of the blame for Wednesday’s violence, and the steady stream of election-related misinformation that prompted it, at Trump’s feet.

Like Wild, who is “hoping to get back to being much more tolerant of the middle ground,” he thinks the goal of American politics going forward should be reconciliation.

He acknowledged, he doesn’t think it’ll be simple.

“The president has taken a wrecking ball to the American political structure,” he said. “The Republican Party is going to have to reconfigure itself out of the ashes.”

Thus far, many Pennsylvania Republicans are showing little sign of a reconfiguration away from Trump.

Their claims of election fraud have centered on gripes with the way the commonwealth’s secretary of state administered the election, and the way that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on cases of contested ballots.

Most of the lawsuits that the Trump campaign filed in efforts to get ballots thrown out were never going to affect enough votes to overturn the election, and none have been successful in court.

The lawsuits that might have overturned results have also been dismissed — in multiple cases, by judges Trump appointed.

Those theories still circulate, however. And many Democrats say as long as they do, reconciliation can’t happen. Many say Trump poses a threat in the next two weeks and needs to be removed from office immediately.

U.S. House and Senate leaders have both called on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, which can put the VP in power if the president dies, resigns, is officially removed, or becomes incapacitated. In this case, they’re arguing that Trump is incapable.

A number of Pennsylvania Democrats have voiced support for that approach, including U.S. Senator Bob Casey and at least the majority of the party’s congressional delegation. Many have also expressed their willingness to vote to impeach Trump, if Pence does not act.

Wild isn’t pushing for impeachment, deeming it too impractical with so little time left in Trump’s term. She’s holding out hope that congress will come around to the idea that “compromise is not a losing proposition.”

But, she adds, she’s not sure when that will be possible.

“I can’t say I’m particularly hopeful for the current Pennsylvania delegation,” she said. “The eight who objected … I think they will be judged fairly harshly for their participation in last night’s frivolous activity.”

Early Thursday morning, as the House debated accepting Pennsylvania’s election results, Rep. Conor Lamb, one of the more moderate Democrats in the caucus, chastised Republicans for being liars, and criticized the fact that the Electoral College challenge continued after the destruction of the day.

“A woman died out there tonight, and you’re making these objections,” he said.

Lamb’s comments almost set off a physical fight between members, as Republicans shouted over Lamb, trying to get his comments stricken from the official record.

“We know that that attack today, it didn’t materialize out of nowhere,” Lamb said. “It was inspired by lies, the same lies you’re hearing in this room tonight, and the members who are repeating those lies should be ashamed of themselves.”

‘Gasoline on the fire’

In Harrisburg, Democrats hold minorities in both the state House and Senate.

Many say they’re outraged at GOP majority leaders for urging congress to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results, at the eight congressional members who voted to do so, and at their colleague, Mastriano, for being in the middle of Wednesday’s chaos.

Senator Vince Hughes, a high-ranking Philadelphia Democrat, is spearheading his caucus’s call for Mastriano’s resignation.

“He put the gasoline on the fire,” Hughes said of Mastriano, who has released a statement saying he didn’t partake in the violent breach of the Capitol and doesn’t support it. “How many rallies did he have on the Capitol steps [baselessly claiming there was election fraud]?”

Neither of the senate’s GOP leaders, Jake Corman and Kim Ward, have weighed in on Mastriano’s presence at the rally, and neither responded to requests for comment.

All of the commonwealth’s Republican congressmen declined interviews as well.

Hughes is also infuriated at Pennsylvania GOP Senators’ refusal this week to seat a duly reelected Democrat, Allegheny County’s Jim Brewster, after the Department of State certified his narrow win against Republican Nicole Ziccarelli.

The Department of State only reached its verdict after the state Supreme Court ruled that certain mail ballots on which voters had failed to properly mark dates could still be counted. Ziccarelli has challenged the results in federal court, and her case is still pending with no deadline for action.

Republicans have said they’re reviewing both candidates’ arguments and are waiting to see how a federal court case plays out.

Hughes thinks that’s sowing more doubt on the validity of elections in Pennsylvania, and he sees a direct line between that and the violence in Washington. He also thinks that unless firm action is taken to repudiate claims of election fraud, they will fester in many Americans’ minds.

“There’s a tendency sometimes in America where a horrific incident occurs, and we tend to … say we’ll get through it and just return to life as normal,” he said. “Too many times we gloss over what really occurred. We cannot gloss over what occurred yesterday, or what occurred on Tuesday with Senator Brewster.”

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal