Lawmakers led by Republican Senator Susan Collins and including conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are due to meet virtually on Friday to discuss reform of the 1887 Electoral Count Act, sometimes called the ECA, which allows members of Congress to dispute presidential election results.
The ECA provided the basis for an effort by former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies to overturn the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021, when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and interrupted the certification of election results.
Collins, who said her group includes six Democrats, told reporters that the aim is "an election reform bill that is truly bipartisan, that would address many of the problems that arose on Jan. 6 and that would help restore confidence in our elections."
Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is separately preparing to introduce ECA reform legislation that would curb the role of Congress and place responsibility for resolving disputes and challenges with states, according to an aide.
The White House welcomed the efforts but made clear it did not regard ECA reform as a substitute for broad voting-rights legislation.
"Certainly, the president is open to engaging with, talking with, as we are, even though it's not a substitute, Republicans and others who are interested in moving forward," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.
Lawmakers believe there is bipartisan support in Congress for such initiatives.
"We see what happened in the insurrection," said Manchin, who is leading the Democratic side of the bipartisan effort. "We're going to get a bunch of people together, Democrats and Republicans, and get a good piece of legislation that protects the counting of the vote."
Manchin spoke a day after he and Sinema stymied an attempt by their fellow Democrats to overturn the Senate's 60-vote threshold for most legislation and pass sweeping voting rights legislation with a simple majority.
The Jan. 6 Capitol riot and a wave of new restrictive voting laws in Republican-led states spawned by Trump's false claims of a stolen 2020 election have raised concerns about the integrity of the U.S. election system.
Manchin said he wants threatening or accosting an election official to be a federal crime.
After the Democratic voting-rights effort failed on Wednesday, senators said there could be scope to meet the 60-vote threshold with more limited legislation aimed at curbing congressional intervention in presidential elections through ECA reform.
"The people who tried to overturn the last election focused on using that act in a way that would have subverted the will of the people. And so there's interest in clarifying the act," Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a member of the Collins group, told reporters.
Collins provided no timeline for producing a bill and said the group has many issues to resolve up front. But she added that their model is the bipartisan talks that produced last year's $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
Time is running short for lawmakers to act. Campaigning is already under way ahead of the Nov. 8 elections when Republicans are favored to regain a majority in at least one chamber of Congress, and the first nominating contests take place in Texas on March 1.
The Collins group is also considering proposals to protect elected officials from harassment and unwarranted removal from office, address election security and improve election management, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that ECA reform is worth discussing in comments that Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer later dismissed.
"I think it needs fixing," McConnell said on Thursday. "We ought to be able to figure out a bipartisan way to fix it."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Mark Porter)
By David Morgan