The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump seems to threaten the careers of senators who are up for reelection after him

President Trump says he “worried” whether Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would support a revised GOP health-care bill that collapsed on July 17. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A bit belatedly, President Trump summoned Republican senators to the White House on Wednesday in an attempt to corral votes for a health-care bill that had already died on the vine. The lesson Trump appears to have learned from the House Republicans’ successful vote to overhaul Obamacare is that, in Washington, dead operates by the “Princess Bride” standard: There’s mostly dead and there’s all dead.

The Senate bill, Trump hopes, is only mostly dead.

The problem he has is that the Senate bill needs 50 votes to pass, relying on Vice President Pence to break a tie, and there are only 52 Republican senators. Which means, as any 8-year-old could tell you, that losing three Republican senators dooms a bill opposed by the Democratic caucus.

This week, either Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) or Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) would have been the third vote to kill the Senate Obamacare replacement, had they not been savvy enough to both announce their objections simultaneously, meaning that neither would be the one to have delivered the fatal blow. They joined Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), dropping the number of Republican votes to 48 and (mostly) killing the bill.

Others, such as Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), seemed like they might similarly tip into the “no” column, offering us an interesting picture of the opposition the bill faced.

Heller and Collins both represent blue states, meaning that their constituencies were probably less receptive to embracing the (unpopular) Republican bill. They’re to the left of the Republican cluster of dots below.

Paul and Lee are at the top of the cluster, indicating that they’re more conservative than most of their colleagues. Moran is a more unusual case, landing more in the middle of the pack — although he represents a state that backed Trump by a wide margin.

Now, all of this was set in place before Wednesday’s luncheon. Trump hadn’t done much to influence the Republican caucus on the Senate bill, so the four detractors all announced their decisions largely outside of his influence. So this lunch was the president’s opportunity to twist some arms.

Trump’s expertise is not in cajoling elected officials on policy details. So on two occasions during the lunch, he instead leveled a threat that he had deployed against wavering House Republicans: Nice job you got there, shame if something happened to it.

He made an argument like that about Heller, for example.

This is a pretty potent threat for Heller, which opponents of the bill used against him. Heller is one of the relatively few Republican senators up for reelection next year (although a lot of Democrats and both independents are).

Before addressing Heller, though, Trump referred to Lee and Moran.

“The other night I was surprised when I heard a couple of my friends — my friends — they really were and are,” he said. “They might not be very much longer, but that’s okay. I think I have to get them back.”

Well, actually, Mr. President, that’s not a great threat. Both of them will hold their seats until two years past when you yourself face reelection.

Thanks to the Republicans’ strong performance last year, a lot of the members of Trump’s caucus — including Lee, Paul and Moran — won’t face reelection for another five years. Making threats against them seems … a bit toothless.

After all, Trump has to be reelected in 2020 (along with a number of other Republicans, including Collins).

If he gets past that and stays fairly popular with the Republican base then maybe he can start threatening to take out Moran and Lee. Right now, though? They’re not super worried about falling in line with their party’s caucus to keep the president happy.

That’s by design, of course.

Journalist Jon Ralston is referring to a probably apocryphal conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As conveyed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Washington is having coffee with Jefferson as the Constitution is being developed.

“Why,” Washington asked, “did you just now pour that coffee into your saucer, before drinking?”
“To cool it,” Jefferson answered, “my throat is not made of brass.”
“Even so,” Washington said, “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Senate terms are six years long and staggered so that there’s stability in the body and so that senators can take the long view. Members of the House, by contrast, have to worry about reelection constantly, and so are more responsive to the whims of the moment.

Trump is a whims guy. He’s discovering that his party’s senatorial caucus is less likely to be.

This article was corrected to clarify the context for Trump’s comments about Lee and Moran.