Republicans still have a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate. But they may no longer have a real governing majority on every issue.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election in 2018 — an acknowledgement that his more moderate stances on issues like immigration and his sharp criticism of President Trump had made him a heavy underdog in the state’s Republican primary. Freed from the need to satisfy a conservative base, Flake can now vote and act however he wants for the next 14 months.
And he’s not the only Republican with this kind of freedom. Tennessee’s Bob Corker is retiring rather than seeking a third term next year. Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, was recently diagnosed with brain cancer and seems unlikely to run for reelection when he’s up again in 2022.
These three men are now effectively free-agents — electorally unbound from GOP voters and interest groups — at a time when Republicans have only a narrow 52-48 majority in the Senate.1 If any of the three becomes more likely to break with the party, passing legislation gets that much harder for Trump and the GOP leadership. And any bill on which all three join with Democrats is dead.
Or, as Susan Hennessy of the legal blog Lawfare put it after Flake’s announcement: “Corker, Flake, McCain. It would seem that, for most intents and purposes, Trump has lost McConnell his majority.”
Here are some of the big issues on which this new Corker-Flake-McCain bloc could cause the party problems. (Note: “Could” is the operative word there — Flake’s announcement makes the math work so that these three senators have the power to block legislation; that doesn’t mean they will. There are also a great many things Trump can do without congressional input.)
Corker has already said that he will vote against any tax bill that substantially increases the federal budget deficit. McCain has made less noise, but he voted against the tax cuts pushed by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003, arguing that they disproportionately benefited the wealthy. And McCain’s enmity toward Trump may be the deepest of this trio. Voting down the tax cut would allow McCain to deny Trump a major legislative victory, just as he did in July by opposing a bill that would have repealed parts of Obamacare.
Flake too has spoken in the past of the rising budget deficit and national debt as a huge problem. Now relieved from having to face Trump’s voters, Flake could insist on a deficit-neutral tax plan. If he does, that could create major headaches for Republicans, who are struggling to find ways to pay for the large cuts they want. The three senators have the power to either kill Trump’s tax plan2 or force Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change it. They could, in theory at least, push for a non-deficit-busting bill that benefits the middle-class more than the wealthy.
Flake has more internationalist views on foreign policy than Trump. He was a strong advocate of then-President Obama’s decision to normalize relationships with Cuba, for example. McCain and Corker largely reject Trump’s more nationalist approach as well.
The trio could try to push policy in their favor by exercising oversight over who serves in the executive branch.
There is much speculation that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will resign in the next few months and that United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley would replace him. But Trump’s picks for Secretary of State or U.N. Ambassador, like any Cabinet post, would have to be confirmed by the Senate. The Flake-Corker-McCain triumvirate now has effective veto power over any nomination Trump makes, assuming all Democrats oppose it as well.
It’s not just the Cabinet. Corker and McCain care deeply about national security issues, and if Flake joins them, any appointment Trump wants to make — from ambassadors to the assistant secretaries at the Pentagon — could be subject to their whims. That could serve as a check on Trump picking non-traditional or controversial figures for national security posts.
Judicial nominations are also more interesting now. Corker, Flake and McCain are generally more conservative than, say, Maine Republican Susan Collins, who has also been willing to buck Trump and GOP leadership (including by repeatedly defending Medicaid during the Obamacare repeal process). They’re not going to demand liberal judges. But if one of the four justices on the U.S. Supreme Court who was appointed by a Democratic president either dies or retires, it’s possible to imagine this trio demanding that Trump push a more centrist nominee as a replacement instead of tapping the most conservative person possible.
Flake favors legislation that would protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents from deportation, and he’s been critical of Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. McCain has similar views. It’s not clear if or when Congress will have a formal vote on either issue, and the real battleground will likely be in the House, which is more hawkish on immigration than the Senate. But if the border wall came up for a simple up-or-down vote, Flake would face no electoral pressure to vote yes. Similarly, he could easily back a pro-Dreamers bill.
Here’s the big caveat to a Corker-Flake-McCain coalition stopping Trump’s agenda: Their pro-Trump voting behavior so far this year. All three men backed two of Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks, Education Secretary Betsy Devos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Corker and Flake supported Obamacare repeal. Overall, all three men have taken the same position as the Trump administration on the overwhelming majority of legislation to come to a vote since Trump’s inauguration, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score. (Corker 86 percent of the time; Flake 90 percent; and McCain 84 percent.) Even if they took these votes to support their party’s president and no longer feel the need to do that, we should not ignore their records.
Also, these three have been stalwart Republicans for much of their careers. On tax cuts, which is a huge priority of not just Trump but also the broader GOP, would they really vote down a bill that almost all of their other Senate colleagues want to see passed? McCain did that on health care. But will he do that again? And would Corker and Flake join him?
Here’s what we know for sure: Flake, Corker and McCain are likely to lean in a pro-establishment but anti-Trump direction, and McConnell and Trump can’t assume they will vote for bills just because they are Republicans. In some ways, Corker, Flake and McCain are now a three-person faction all their own — the Trump dissidents in the Senate, or the “Last Hurrah Caucus.” As a group, or individually along with moderate Republicans such as Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, they have a lot of sway over the nation’s legislative agenda.