Despite President-elect Joe Biden's victory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday (US time) that President Donald Trump is "100 per cent within his rights" to question election results, as Republican lawmakers fall in line behind the White House.
The Republican leader's remarks, his first public comments since Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election, show how reluctant Trump's allies on Capitol Hill have been to defy the President, even in his defeat.
Most Republicans are refusing to congratulate Biden, or suggest Trump should accept the outcome, even though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
"Our institutions are actually built for this," McConnell said as he opened the Senate. "We have the system in place to consider concerns and President Trump is 100 per cent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options."
McConnell said the process will play out and "reach its conclusion."
Republicans are closing the Trump era much the way they started it, by joining the President in shattering civic norms and sowing uncertainty in institutions, now in a way that threatens the nation's normal transition of power.
Privately, Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are in a tough spot, wary of crossing Trump and his most ardent supporters, but uncomfortable with casting doubt on the durability of nation's elections system. The head of the General Services Administration under Trump has held off on formally beginning the Biden transition to the White House, damaging the traditionally peaceful transfer of power.
Trump has declined to concede the presidential race and is mounting legal fights in several states, but there has been no indication or evidence of voter irregularities or widespread fraud in the election.
The President's refusal to accept the results means the election disputes could drag for weeks as states certify their tallies or push to mid-December, when the Electoral College is set to vote.
With the Senate majority on the line, Republicans don't dare risk alienating Trump or his supporters ahead of Biden's January 20 inauguration.
In Georgia, where Trump is trailing Biden in the vote count and both Republican senators are being forced into January 5 runoff elections that will determine party control of the Senate, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler jointly called their state's election system an "embarrassment" and demanded Georgia's secretary of state resign.
Many Republicans have signalled a December deadline, pointing to the time it took to resolve the disputed 2000 race before Democrat Al Gore conceded to Republican George W Bush.
"In the end, we want all legal ballots to be counted," said Congressman Steve Scalise in an interview. "You go back to Bush v Gore, it was second week of December that it got resolved... so there's still questions out there that need to get resolved and that process is playing itself out."
Unlike the 2000 election, when a few hundred votes in Florida separated Bush and Gore, Trump is casting a wide net of legal challenges in states where Biden is thousands of votes ahead of him.
Some Republicans privately scoff at Trump's legal team, helmed by personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and doubt the President has a credible route to challenge the election results.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Monday the Republicans' refusal to stand by the election results is "extremely dangerous, extremely poisonous to our democracy".
Schumer said election lawsuits can be valid but they must be based in evidence and facts. He dismissed Trump's challenges as "frivolous".
"Joe Biden won the election fair and square," Schumer said.
McConnell and Republicans rejected that conclusion, saying the election results were not yet finalised.
"Let's not have any lectures, no lectures, about how the President should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results," McConnell said.
Pressed if there was any evidence of voter fraud, GOP Senator John Cornyn, who just won re-election in Texas, demurred.
"That's really not my, my role," Cornyn told reporters on Capitol Hill. "There is a process that is available, and I don't begrudge the President for availing himself of that process — but in the end, they're going to have to come up with some facts and evidence."
Privately, Republicans on Capitol Hill have said they are trying to give Trump the time and space he needs to come to grips with the election results.
"Well, I think he's got a right, a constitutional right, if there are legal challenges they want to make," said Senator John Thune. "Let those play out."
Republican lawmakers are hesitant to push Trump to concede to Biden, knowing it would anger their base of Trump's most devoted supporters. But they are not overtly encouraging the President's unfounded claims of fraud, even as they fan the flames of doubt in the election process by allowing questions to linger.
"Stay out of the fray," as one Republican aide put it. If it takes a little longer to bring the election to a conclusion, said another Republican aide, "so be it".
Whatever position the Republicans take, "you're going to anger half the country," said another Republican on Capitol Hill.