The flare-up could be the first of many in the Senate this year with Democrats promising to continue to try to tie their GOP colleagues to controversial proposals from Trump, the front-runner in the Republican presidential campaign.
The Wednesday vote to begin considering the refugee bill failed on a 55 to 43 tally, with 60 votes needed to advance the legislation. The bill, which the House passed last month, would suspend the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees until the Obama administration can certify that no one coming to the United States poses a security threat.
Congressional Republicans have been wary of Trump and his populist rhetoric, but they are finding it harder to ignore him as polls continue to show he is leading the Republican presidential race just a few weeks before voters are set to caucus in Iowa on Feb. 1, the first contest in the 2016 presidential race.
Following the San Bernardino shootings last month, Trump proposed temporarily banning the entry of all Muslims into the country, not just refugees, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Trump earned wide criticism from Republicans and Democrats for the proposal, with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) saying it does not represent American values.
Democrats are eager to highlight this tension.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) slammed the refugee bill but said Democrats would allow it to advance if they could offer four amendments, including one aimed at Trump that would put senators on record about whether there should be a religious test for anyone entering the country.
Reid said the bill “scapegoats refugees who are fleeing war and torture instead of creating real solutions to keep Americans safe” and added that by putting it on the floor “Republicans are creating a terrible distraction for the sake of embracing the hateful rhetoric and vitriol of the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, Donald Trump.”
Senate Republicans declined Reid’s offer and Democrats blocked the refugee legislation. President Obama has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
Earlier this month, Reid said he will use every opportunity to try to force Senate votes on policies touted by Trump. This drew a warning from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that he would counter by holding votes on campaign promises made by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said last week.
Senate Republicans are trying to avoid holding a lot of controversial votes this year to protect GOP incumbents in tight races, many of whom need to hold their seats to keep the Senate under Republican control next year.
Presidential candidates Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were also on hand for Wednesday’s vote. All three voted to advance the refugee bill.
The Democrats’ Trump amendment was modeled after a sense of the Senate resolution that was approved by the Judiciary Committee last year with the support of many panel Republicans. But Cruz voted against the resolution by proxy at the time despite having stated that he disagrees with Trump’s proposal.
Not all Republicans saw the potential of taking a Trump vote as a threat.
“I’ve stated my position; I think people understand it,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is facing a difficult reelection race against former Democratic senator Russ Feingold. Last month, he disavowed Trump’s proposal but said he supports the refugee bill.
“Whether we take the vote or not, I think we should get on the bill,” Johnson said.
The other amendments Democrats wanted to offer were measures that would:
• Prevent people whose names appear on terrorist watch lists from purchasing firearms, explosives, or radiological materials;
• Increase funding for local police departments; and
• Advance Democrat-sponsored legislation to enhance homeland security and anti-terrorism measures that was proposed in the wake of recent attacks.
Democrats argued that blocking votes on those proposals is hypocritical because McConnell has said he favors an open amendment process.
McConnell said it would be a better idea to set up a process where Democrats and Republicans could offer alternating amendments rather than limiting the list to the four proposed by Democrats, but he didn’t commit to that plan. Even some Democrats preferred the idea of voting on a bigger list of changes to the legislation.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of two Democrats to vote to advance the bill, said prior to the vote that he wanted to offer two amendments, including one to make sure social media is scrutinized as part of background checks.
“We pretty much have done everything, crossed every t, dotted every i…. If we add social media to that, we think that makes it a pretty all-inclusive process,” Manchin said, adding that shutting down the refugee intake process altogether was “ridiculous.”