House leaders

Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Bryan Cutler replies to a question during a news Conference in the capitol Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Standing to the right of Cutler is House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.

President Donald Trump spoke with Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler twice in the past week, asking one of the state’s highest ranking Republicans to help him reverse Joe Biden’s victory in the state, The Washington Post reported Monday night.

Cutler’s office confirmed the calls from the president, The Post reported, but Cutler told Trump the legislature can’t overturn the certified election results.

The calls came as Cutler called for  the state’s congressional delegation to consider unresolved legal challenges to the state’s presidential election results when the Electoral College vote is tallied early next month.

That’s why he said he joined more than 60 of his colleagues on Friday in sending a letter to the delegation urging them to dispute the state’s 20 electoral votes when they are officially presented during a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6.

During a phone interview with LNP | LancasterOnline on Monday, Cutler said the letter is intended only  to keep options open until several court cases are resolved.

“All it does is makes them question it,” Cutler said of the letter’s intent. “That’s it. That’s important, because while our electors are certified, there’s still some ongoing litigation that should be considered should something change.”

 

Cutler also said he agreed with the arguments put forth by Lancaster County’s two GOP senators last week. That piece, published in LNP | LancasterOnline, faulted the Wolf administration’s handling of the election, but said there was no hard evidence of fraud that tipped the election to President-elect Joe Biden over President Donald Trump.

Cutler, as the highest ranking Republican in the House, has charted a careful course on the election results over the past month. Within days of the Nov. 3 election, he joined with the other GOP leaders of the legislature to urge Gov. Tom Wolf to audit the results with an eye toward fixing problems in how mail-in balloting is handled. But he and his colleagues in Republican leadership made clear then that the legislature would not -- and could not -- intervene to overturn the certified results of the election. 

On Nov. 30, a week after Wolf certified the election results, Cutler posted to Facebook explaining why the legislature could not act on a resolution introduced that day to delay certification of the presidential vote. Cutler noted that the state constitution sets Nov. 30 in election years as the end date for the session and that legislative rules made it impossible to act on the measure in a single day. 

Comments responding to Cutler’s post were angry, with commenters insisting inaccurately that the Republican-controlled legislature has the authority to reconvene to do any number of things, from appointing a new slate of electors pledged to President Trump to auditing and investigating the conduct of the election.

On Monday, Cutler posted to Facebook again to explain that the Dec. 4 letter to the congressional delegation “does not call for ‘rival electors’ or overturning any results of the popular vote,” only that it seeks to delay counting the state’s electoral votes until all legal challenges are resolved. He also said he had signed a petition urging the governor to call the legislature back into session, though his office has been noncommittal on what legislation they would like Wolf to call them back to consider.

Despite these caveats, Cutler continued to blast the handling of the election, charging that an activist state Supreme Court created rules and procedures not envisioned in the state’s mail-in voting statute, thus creating confusion among the electorate. But the letter Cutler co-signed to the state’s congressional delegation does not mention any of the ongoing legal challenges; instead, it lists how the Wolf administration “undermined the lawful certification” of Pennsylvania’s electors.

While Cutler’s signature on the letter is seen widely as a win for those seeking to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results, Cutler said he views it as a “pause button.”

“My goal was simply to raise my hand and make sure the congressional delegation considers legal challenges and, if any, impact that may have on the outcome,” he added.

Still, in its story on President Trump’s calls to Cutler, The Washington Post reported that U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, who represents part of York County, has said he will heed letter’s advice and object to the state’s electoral votes next month.

In his conversation with LNP | LancasterOnline, Cutler said he'd been receiving pressure from the Trump campaign to help them with different legal filings. He did not disclose that Trump himself was one of those pressuring him.

"Some members from the campaign have tried to reach out, I very purposely have not communicated," he said.

"I view it as ex parte contact with a judge," he added. "I’ve done a lot myself to refer them to the appropriate folks.... I understand that they’re asking for [remedies]. We’ll see what, if any, decisions that court renders here soon."

Cutler said he believes Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and Gov. Wolf rushed the certification of the state’s election results, and noted the state only certified its 2016 election a few days before the required “Safe Harbor” date, which blocks Congress from challenging electors certified by a state. 

Electoral votes were last challenged in January 2005, when congressional Democrats objected to releasing Ohio’s 20 electoral votes for President George W. Bush. Democrats cited “numerous, serious election irregularities” in the state that led to the “significant disenfranchisement of voters,” according to a House Judiciary Report at the time. 

One U.S. representative and senator are needed to object to the results during the joint session when the electoral votes are received by Congress. In 2005, a Democratic representative from Ohio and a senator from California filed the objection. When a qualifying objection is filed, each chamber reconvenes separately to debate the matter for two hours. A simple majority is needed to accept or reject the challenge.

Republicans held a majority in both chambers in 2005 and turned away the Democrats’ challenges to Ohio’s votes. 

Democratic representatives in seven states attempted to use this mechanism in 2016 to object to President Trump’s victory, but none of them had the backing of a senator. As the sitting vice president at the time, Joe Biden presided over the tallying of electoral votes and dismissed each of the objections.

On Monday, Cutler also criticized the Nov. 30 effort by some of his caucus to pass a resolution to reverse the certification of the election results and declare that Pennsylvania’s electoral votes were in dispute. 

“It’s very dangerous when people make promises [they can’t keep] for unconstitutional or other reasons,” Cutler said. “I think it created an unrealistic expectation that something was going to be done.”

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