U.S. Vice President Mike Pence opened a joint session of Congress to formally certify Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's victory, rejecting President Donald Trump's demand that he unilaterally reject electoral votes.
Trump's allies in Congress mounted a last-ditch bid to undo his election loss on the same day Trump's fellow Republicans were poised to lose their majority in the Senate, in a session that could last past midnight.
"We will never give up," Trump told thousands of cheering supporters on a grassy expanse near the White House called the Ellipse. "We will never concede. It doesn't happen. You don't concede when there's theft involved."
Trump applied fresh pressure on Pence, who presided over the session, to try to reverse the election results. In a statement, Pence said he shares the concerns about the "integrity" of the election but that is not correct that he should be able to accept or reject electoral votes unilaterally.
The U.S. Constitution does not give Pence the power to unilaterally overturn the results of the election, but he is under pressure to do so from Trump.
"It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not," he said in the statement.
Biden won the election by 306-232 in the state-by-state Electoral College and by more than 7 million ballots in the national popular vote, but Trump continues to falsely claim there was widespread fraud and that he was the victor.
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The Electoral College results were presented alphabetically, starting with Alabama. Republicans raised their first objection to results from Arizona, with possible objections to follow for Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
Republican lawmakers cheered and Democrats groaned when the Arizona objection was brought.
State and federal reviews have debunked Trump's claims of widespread election fraud even as increasingly desperate legal efforts by his campaign and allies on the right to overturn the election have failed in numerous courts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden is due to take office on January 20.
In his speech to supporters, Trump praised the Republican lawmakers seeking to challenge the election as "brave" and called members of his party who oppose the effort "weak" and pathetic."
Pence, a loyal lieutenant during the four years of Trump's tumultuous presidency, presided over the start of proceedings in the Capitol.
"Mike Pence, I hope you're going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and the good of our country. And if you're not, I'm going to be very disappointed in you," Trump said in remarks that continued even as Pence rejected his request.
Pence's statement said as presiding officer he will do his duty to ensure concerns about the election receive a fair and open hearing.
Senator Ted Cruz, seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, on Wednesday led at least 11 other Republican senators, alongside a majority of the 211 Republicans in the House, in objecting to Electoral College results being formally approved by Congress.
DRAMA IN CONGRESS
The House chamber was filled with Republicans, all in masks, on the right, despite social distancing guidelines. On the left side, Democrats were scattered. As Pelosi issued instructions about the start of the session, there were repeated shouts from the Republican side, interrupting her to object to social distancing rules.
The proceedings began at 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT).
Critics of Trump and his allies have painted the efforts to try to reverse the election in Congress as an attack on democracy and the rule of law and an attempted legislative coup.
Democrats won one U.S. Senate race in Georgia and led in another on Wednesday after a pair of runoff elections on Tuesday. Winning both races would give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the power to advance Biden's legislative agenda.
Cruz is bucking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has recognized Biden's victory and urged his fellow Republicans not to pursue the challenges, which appear to lack the political support they would need to succeed. The Republican maneuvering has created fissures within Trump's party and among outside groups normally supportive of it.
Republican senators, including Josh Hawley and James Lankford, have joined forces with Cruz, while other prominent members of the party, including Senator Mitt Romney and Representative Liz Cheney, oppose it.
Thousands of Trump supporters, including some members of violent far-right groups, staged demonstrations as they took up the president's unfounded claim that the election was stolen from him in an elaborate conspiracy. Many donned Trump's trademark red "Make America Great Again" hats and flags bearing his name, and a few carried a large Christian cross.
One of the president's sons, Donald Trump Jr., and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, also addressed the rally.
Some protesters clashed with police overnight. Police this week arrested the leader of the Proud Boys, a group that has supported Trump, on charges of destruction of property related to an earlier protest and possession of a firearms magazine.
Many Republican senators who have refused to challenge the election results have received death threats on their office voice mail, a senior Senate Republican aide said.
If the challenges are ultimately defeated as anticipated, Pence, acting in his role as president of the Senate, is expected to proclaim Biden the next president and Senator Kamala Harris as the next vice president.
When at least one House member and one Senate member objects to a state result, each chamber will hold separate debates for each of those states lasting up to two hours. Each chamber will then vote to accept or reject the challenge and then report the result to the joint session of Congress, before moving on to the next challenge.