In its final days in session, the Senate has shaken off some parliamentary and legislative rust to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into policy debates that he would have preferred to brush aside.
Some of these steps mark a turn in the Senate’s willingness to stand up to President Trump — at least on foreign policy matters — and some are important but symbolic gestures by frustrated senators. Another could deliver Trump a key domestic policy win on bipartisan sentencing restructuring.
Regardless of the motives, rank-and-file senators have employed a mix of unique techniques, old-fashioned threats and insider persuasion to spark debates that had been blocked or delayed.
It has left McConnell (R-Ky.) with a seemingly looser hold on power, which could translate into more opportunities next year for Democrats and any GOP allies willing to oppose Trump.
But that requires these senators to continue using the tools at their disposal to force action that would otherwise never happen.
“I think it’s taken a long time for people to get off their hands and figure out that, if we’re not going to actually bring legislation to the floor of the Senate and have amendments, we’ve got to find ways to force votes and debates,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who just won a second term.
Murphy is helping lead opposition to the Trump administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. That group of senators invoked a rarely used provision of the War Powers Act to force a debate Wednesday on whether to rebuke the kingdom for its war in Yemen and also formally condemn its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for his role in the murder of journalist-dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
The House has blocked consideration of a similar measure, and with this Congress formally expiring in three weeks, the legislation will not reach Trump’s desk. But 11 Republicans joined all 49 members of the Democratic caucus in starting the debate, including a surprise aye vote by Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The entire GOP leadership team voted against the resolution.
McConnell, who rarely sees legislation pass without his imprimatur, understands the intricacies of the Senate better than anyone, and allies say he does not mind watching others learn how to maneuver through its arcane rules.
“Part of the value of the Senate is, nobody is ever in any full control but everybody in their own way is in control and you just have to go where that takes you,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), who is being elevated to the No. 4 Republican leadership post next month.
Earlier Wednesday, Democrats won a rare victory on a resolution that would forbid the Internal Revenue Service to loosen donor disclosure rules for some ideological nonprofit organizations. It was the second time this year that Democrats used the Congressional Review Act, designed to allow Congress to reject administration regulations, for a victory — Republicans passed 15 laws through the CRA that overturned agency rules from the Obama administration.
These measures will go nowhere in the Republican-controlled House, and even next year Trump will be there to veto similar efforts.
But it gives Democrats a sense of how to play offense, and it came the same week that McConnell caved to demands from Trump and his fellow Republicans that he allow a debate on a criminal justice bill that would reduce some prison sentences and work toward preventing recidivism among released convicts.
He had been adamant in private and public that the legislation was “extremely controversial” and “extremely divisive” for Republicans, dismissing the bipartisan bill as too time-consuming.
While McConnell never took a public position, many senators came to believe he simply didn’t like the legislation and wanted to delay it into oblivion rather than actually oppose a bill supported by Trump and negotiated by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a supporter of the prison legislation, said Wednesday that McConnell set “a bar” for how much support they needed before he would make time on the floor — a supermajority of Republicans.
“He kept his word,” Graham said, explaining the reversal and the new plan to begin debate later this week. “He told us what he wanted us to do and we did it.”
Supporters of the measure complained publicly about McConnell’s reluctance and eventually won him over by showing about 30 of the 51 GOP senators are willing to support the bill.
No one knows yet how McConnell will vote.
The rush to unusual maneuvers began after Trump forced Jeff Sessions out as attorney general shortly after the midterm elections, leading Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a fierce critic of the president, to announce he would oppose all remaining judicial nominations until he retires in early January. In exchange, he is demanding a vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
McConnell has dismissed that request, but Flake has bottled up any additional federal judges getting out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some Democrats believe their resounding victory in the midterms — they won the House despite losing two seats in the Senate — will prompt more Republicans to consider taking similar steps next year to push Trump at least a little bit more.
“There clearly are going to be more Republicans, rather than less, who are willing to buck the president after this midterm,” Murphy said. “I think you are starting to see the first instance of that. You would have never gotten 60 votes to repudiate one of the president’s foreign policy pillars before Election Day.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, expressed similar surprise over more than 20 percent of the GOP caucus opposing Trump’s position on Saudi Arabia, even if it is for now just a symbolic move.
“People see the handwriting on this. I guess they want to cover themselves,” Cardin said.
Graham, who is a Trump ally, said Democrats were “overthinking” these recent actions. He does not expect much to change, except on matters related to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
On that, he chose a blunt explanation for why 60 senators broke from Trump: the gruesome nature of Khashoggi’s killing.
“The reason they got 60 votes is because they chopped this guy up,” Graham said.