It Would Take Only a Single Senator

With Republicans clinging to a precarious 50–49 majority, every individual GOP senator can serve as a check on Trump’s excesses whenever they choose to act.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

A few days ago I wrote a long item about changing assessments of Donald Trump: which first impressions had held up, and which had called for second thoughts over time.

The last part of the post concerned the main, and depressing, area where second thoughts were necessary. That was the complete failure of the congressional governing party—Paul Ryan and his large Republican majority in the House, Mitch McConnell and his razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate—to stand up either for its institutional prerogatives, as a separate branch of government, or for normal principles of accountability and the rule of law.

In keeping with the concept that if something is worth saying once, it’s worth saying again—and more concisely—here is the ending part of that previous post once more. It’s also been updated to reflect a sad change in the math of the Senate. When I wrote it, John McCain was ailing and absent from the Senate. Now, of course, he has died, and (as I write, when no replacement has yet been named) the Senate has for the moment only 99 members.

Here is the payoff part of the earlier post.

Is there a surprise, a disappointment, and a settled tragedy so far? There is. It is the same one I described last year, in the first summer of the Trump age:

The major weakness these six months have revealed in our governing system is almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll name it anyway. It is the refusal, so far, by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Donald Trump the standards its members know the country depends on for long-term survival of its government. A system of checks and balances relies on each of its component branches resisting overreach by the others. The judiciary has done its part; Paul Ryan’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate have not. We’re seeing the difference that can make.

At that time, McConnell’s Republicans held 52 seats in the Senate. To constitute a 51-vote Senate majority, which in turn could have begun to put some limit on Trump (by authorizing hearings or issuing subpoenas), three of them would have had to switch their votes to join the other side.

That’s a relatively tall order, especially early in any president’s term. But with Doug Jones’s victory in the Senate race in Alabama, the Republican count shrank to 51. With McCain’s death, and until a (presumably Republican) replacement is named, only 50 Republican senators are available to vote, while the Democrats and independents together number 49.

This means that just one Republican senator joining the Democrats and independents would give them 50 votes, against only 49 Republicans, until McCain’s successor is sworn in. And even after that, a total of two Republican senators would have it in their power to create a 51-vote majority and impose limits on an executive they know to be out of control.

Who might those two senators theoretically be? A list I offered early this year still applies:

  • Two like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker who are not running for re-election and have no primary-challenge consequences to fear;
  • Two like Orrin Hatch and John McCain who mainly have their places in history to think about [this was written seven months ago];
  • Two like the young Ben Sasse and the veteran Lamar Alexander who pride themselves on being “thoughtful”;
  • Two like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski who pride themselves on being “independent”;
  • Two like Rand Paul and Mike Lee who pride themselves on their own kind of independence;
  • Two like Rob Portman and John Barrasso who pride themselves on being decent;
  • Two like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton with conceivable long-term higher-office hopes;
  • Two like Tim Scott and James Lankford who jointly wrote a statement on the need for broad-minded inclusion;
  • Two like Chuck Grassley and Richard Shelby, who like Hatch and McCain are in their 80s and conceivably have “legacy” on their minds (remember that in the Alabama Senate race Shelby took a stand against his party’s odious nominee, Roy Moore);
  • One like Dean Heller, facing a tough re-election race, plus maybe Lindsey Graham, who used to be among the leaders in blunt talk about Trump’s excesses.

That’s 20 senators total. The current GOP majority includes 31 more, most of whom are even stauncher party-line voters than those listed above and thus would give rise to sarcastic “Oh, sure!eye-roll reactions at the mere idea of their breaking ranks.

But remember: Every one of them swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

They now confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control.

The list of whos could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.

The first-term GOP Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska gave an illustration a few days ago of the powers that these 51 senators might exercise, if only they dared move beyond talk. Sasse, who has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate in history from Yale, has so far been notable for his statements of concern about America’s cultural and governing predicament, not backed up by dissenting votes. But Thursday afternoon, on the Senate floor, Sasse said that he would “find it really difficult to envision any circumstance to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he is executing his job rather than choosing to act like a partisan hack.” That is, he issued a warning shot to Trump not to fire Sessions, converted by the politics of these times into an improbable rule-of-law tribune, for fear of running into resistance in the Senate.

It wasn’t an actual vote, but it was at least a hypothesized threat of one. The moment was like a baby bird discovering its wings. Imagine if Sasse thought to apply such powers on behalf not just of a former Senate colleague but of, say, Robert Mueller. Imagine if Sasse or any of his colleagues decided to use the potentially enormous powers of any single senator, let alone a group of them, to insist that a sitting president release his tax returns, or that his officials testify about mounting felony allegations. In any circumstances, the Senate’s arcane procedures mean that lone senators, determined to make a stand, can hold up business or block nominees to get their way. When the ruling party holds only 51 seats, or for the moment 50, the power of any one or two members goes up astronomically. With great power comes great responsibility—a responsibility that 50 men and women are choosing to shirk.

Let’s hope that, when looking backward, this final sentence is one I have occasion to revise.