A dozen Republicans voted with the Democrats to support a resolution rebuking President Trump for declaring a national emergency in order to secure money to build a wall on the southwestern border. This is a major insurrection within the GOP, and what did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do?
He stood aside and let Vice President Pence do the heavy lifting of trying to keep the GOP in line. McConnell isn’t popular at the best of times and, at what is shaping up as the worst of times for Republicans, the turtle is showing, once again, that he has the spine of a jellyfish.
Rand Paul of Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, predicted “at least 10” GOP senators were prepared to vote with the Democrats. He was right. McConnell’s popularity in Kentucky is 33 percent, sparking rumors he might “do a Ryan” and get out when his term is up in January of 2021.
That may depend on how McConnell handles this uprising of Republicans. He’s a man accustomed to being in control, and now he’s left his integrity, or what was left of it, as a sacrifice on the Trump altar.
Supporting the president’s declaration of emergency on the southern border was the price the majority leader paid to secure Trump’s signature last month on legislation to fund the government. You could say the majority leader sold his soul to keep the government open, but he’d sold out country to party a long time ago.
“Saying he’s a good legislative mechanic is like saying Trump is a good con man,” says a former longtime Senate aide on the Democratic side.
You would think this must have been an agonizing choice for McConnell: to side with a president testing the outer bounds of his executive authority, or to stand up for the core principles of the Republican Party, which used to be small government and limits on executive authority.
Instead McConnell tried to shrug it off as though these are forces beyond his control. “He’ll be making a pitch but he won’t be twisting arms in a way that causes any real pain,” the Senate aide said ahead of the vote, one helped by a count that shows there are enough Republicans still in line that the Senate won’t override Trump’s expected veto, which would be the first of his presidency.
There’s nothing to see here, says Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a Kentucky native who worked in the George W. Bush White House. “This is actually a pretty simple issue,” he told the Daily Beast. “A majority exists in both chambers. But not enough to override a presidential veto.”
That would kick it to the courts, and ultimately the Supreme Court, as Trump predicted when he announced the declaration. If it’s up to the courts anyway, it would be foolhardy for Republicans to choose this issue to show their independence from Trump, says Jennings. “On the core issue animating his presidency, immigration, Republicans generally will stick with the president. The courts will decide it anyway. All you do is create a headache for yourself with the White House if you vote for the resolution.”
Thirteen Republicans joined all the Democrats in the House vote last month to rebuke Trump’s declaration of emergency, foreshadowing the outcome this week in the senate.
Because this is a symbolic vote, McConnell can sleep at night and pretend this clash of the branches of government, this high-blown constitutional argument, has nothing to do with him. “No matter what Mitch McConnell does, it will wind up being decided in the courts,” says Jennings, who calls the vote “a useless gesture.”
The 22 Republicans who are up for reelection in 2020 will have to weigh the cost of voting their conscience if they choose to confront Trump.
“Defect on this issue, and the president will take note of it,” says Jennings. Should he run for a new term, McConnell will be among those who want to avoid a primary challenge. He had a tight race in 2014 against Matt Bevin, a Tea Party candidate who is now governor. Trump is popular among McConnell’s constituents so there is no political pressure for him to lead the charge against Trump’s overreach.
“The most troubling eventuality is probably in the future,” says Jennings. “A Democratic president can do it with climate change, health care, gun control —whatever cause in Congress that would allow a conservative’s head to explode—that’s the troubling issue.”
Funny, if you’re on the progressive side, you’re thinking go ahead, make my day. If Trump’s conservative majority on the Supreme Court makes it possible for a future president to declare an emergency over something more deserving than a wall, maybe that’s the comeuppance McConnell and company deserve.
McConnell may have been an institutionalist at one time, but he ceased to be one when he said his top priority in 2009 was to make Barack Obama a one-term president, or in 2016 when he abused the Senate’s role of advise and consent by refusing to give Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, a vote or even a hearing. He’s supposed to be the leader of the loyal opposition, but that loyalty long ago ceased to be to the Senate he serves.