An Anti-Trump Caucus Can Force Some Issues
(Bloomberg View) -- Jeff Flake. Bob Corker. John McCain. Each of these senators has now delivered scathing attacks on the president of the United States elected by their own party. Three others could potentially join them: Ben Sasse, who harshly attacked Trump throughout the campaign and at times since then, and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who have opposed Trump personally in addition to opposing Trump -- and their fellow Republican Senators -- on some policy questions.
That's a potential six-senator group of anti-Trump Republicans. I've argued that in politics, words are action. But surely there are additional steps they could take.
The most extreme step, and one that political junkies can't help but speculate about, would be leaving the Republican conference and working with the Democrats to organize the Senate. It would only take three of them, and we have seen similar ploys in state legislatures, including right now in the New York senate.
It's not going to happen, because it's the wrong remedy for the problem. It's not just that all six are far more conservative than their Democratic colleagues. Even more than that, to the extent that there is a civil war among Republicans, all six are on the same side as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He's not their enemy, and in fact few of their Republican colleagues are their direct enemies. Trump is. Steve Bannon is. Sean Hannity is. And while in a less direct sense the entire Gingrich-inspired thrust of the Republican Party over the last 25 years or so is the problem they should care about, it's hard to see how teaming up with Chuck Schumer will solve any of that, at least without sacrificing their own policy preferences.
Nor is it particularly appropriate at this point to, as some have suggested, call for impeachment and removal of the president. They are senators; they will be the jury if the House ever does send them articles of impeachment. That doesn't require them to remain silent on the subject, but it does suggest that their proper role at this point is to make sure investigations move forward and to call out abuses of power then they see them. Anything more is just going to be lip service anyway.
A more practical solution would be to organize as an explicitly anti-Trump caucus within the Republican Party. At FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. argues they could derail Trump's policy agenda. At this point, though, there's little happening in Congress that has much to do with Trump -- they're mostly ignoring his policy preferences when they deviate from conservative orthodoxy, and doing what they would do if the presidency was actually occupied by an automated signature machine. That still leaves some of the six opposing their Republican colleagues on some issues. Does that have much to do with Trump, or even with the larger Republican dysfunction? Not really.
The Atlantic's McKay Coppins has some more practical, Trump-focused suggestions of what they could accomplish: They could take actions to protect Robert Mueller's investigation and to ensure that Senate investigations are done properly. I've long advocated a Senate Select Committee for the Trump-Russia scandal and other Trump lawless behavior, and I don't think it's too late for that. The Senate Intelligence investigation is serious, but it's also showing all the limitations that were obvious to observers such as Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes from the beginning. It's also not fully funded, something six senators could fight to remedy.
But there's more an anti-Trump caucus could do. It's one thing to (as Bacon properly suggests) defeat inappropriate Trump nominees. But an anti-Trump caucus could use its leverage on nominations to force Trump's hand. For example, members could pressure him to fire his son-in-law by refusing to confirm key nominations until he does so. The same tactic can be used over threatened executive actions, to push Trump to make his tax returns public, or to push him to divest from his businesses as he should have done as soon as he was elected -- or at least to stop using his presidency to advertise his properties. Granted, this one can't be nearly as effective as it would have been in January when there was a flood of high-profile executive branch nominations, but Trump still probably cares about getting at least some of his nominees confirmed.
Another thing they could do, albeit somewhat less formal, would be to stop giving Trump the normal courtesy and respect that presidents get until he starts acting like one. No showing up for White House functions such as state dinners, for example, and urging others not to do so either.
If they correctly believe Trump is a symptom of Republican dysfunction -- not a fluke who came out of nowhere -- there is another way to hold the line. Especially if they agree with John McCain that Congress hasn't been working very well.
Six Republicans could declare that they won't be a part of Republican procedural extremism any more. They could, for example, pledge to:
- Oppose any move to curtail the filibuster in the Senate;
- Support a clean debt limit increase, and oppose any efforts to use it to gain leverage even for Republican policies they support;
- Oppose any effort to shut down the government;
- Oppose proceeding to consideration of any bill without at least some committee consideration, proper Congressional Budget Office scoring, and some possibility for amendments;
- Support increased funding for Congressional operations.
Each of those would leave them free to vote for the conservative legislation they and other Republicans support. But they would ratchet back some of the procedural hardball Republicans (and, yes, in many cases Democrats) have used.
The bottom line is that it's unreasonable to expect Republicans to oppose their own policy preferences, and it's also extremely difficult for them to take actions which threaten Republican electoral victories. They all should have done more when the Republican presidential nomination was on the line; they all should do what they can when other Republican nominations are contested. What they have done in speaking up is helpful and constructive. But if they mean what they say, they should not stop there.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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