Two Republicans with among the largest national profiles of senators in the new Congress aren’t wasting any time in drawing the contours of a debate that is sure to run over for the next two years.
Namely, the extent to which members of the Senate GOP hitch their wagons to President Donald Trump as an election cycle gets underway with a map that might be more favorable to the Democrats.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and Massachusetts governor who is set to be sworn in Wednesday as the junior senator from Utah, laid bare his differences with Trump in a Washington Post opinion piece this week.
“On balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” Romney wrote.
“I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not,” he added. “I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”
No ‘team player’
That predictably attracted a rebuttal from Trump during a marathon session with the media present at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
“I wish Mitt could be more of a team player,” the president said. “I endorsed him and he thanked me profusely.”
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican whose own 2016 presidential aspirations were short-circuited in part by the rise of Trump, delivered perhaps the most direct criticism of Romney’s approach as he prepares to join the Senate Republican Conference.
“I think of all the good things we’ve done, and I just don’t think the president deserves to have a new senator coming in attacking his character,” Paul said Wednesday on a conference call with congressional reporters.
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Paul anticipated that the majority of the incoming class of Republican senators would embrace the president rather than speak against him in the way Romney is pledging to do.
“I think this going to be an anomaly, and I think the new senator from Utah may have misjudged,” Paul said.
One big question will be whether Romney’s public posture toward the occupant of the White House will extend to his Senate voting record or tangible legislative action.
In the 51-49 Senate dynamic at the end of the 115th Congress, Flake asserted leverage by refusing to vote in favor of Trump nominees to fill seats on the federal judiciary, likely cutting down the number ultimately confirmed before the end of 2018.
He did so as part of a failed crusade to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to schedule a floor vote on legislation to shield special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian efforts to undermine U.S. democracy (and any connections to the Trump campaign).
Flake delivered a warning in a farewell to his Arizona constituents that rang a similar tone to Romney’s piece ahead of his arrival in the chamber.
“A political vision that is determined to turn American against American is beyond reckless, and is, quite simply, a prescription for political extinction,” Flake wrote in The Arizona Republic. “If we want to remain a viable alternative in the future, we need to play a game of addition rather than subtraction.”
Flake’s response to the president had some teeth, and the coming months will tell whether Romney takes a similar approach. But oddly enough, it’s actually Paul who has proved to be a more frequent legislative adversary of the Trump White House’s positions.
The Kentucky Republican made certain to point that out Wednesday, highlighting his own libertarian leanings.
“I’ve voted against the president more times than any other Republican, and yet I’m quick to support him on the big questions of the day where I do support him,” Paul said. “And I don’t question his character.”