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If they won't grow spines, Senate Republicans could at least rediscover their tongues

If they won't grow spines, Senate Republicans could at least rediscover their tongues
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Capitol Hill on on Sept. 27, 2018. (Michael Reynolds / TNS)

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), one of two increasingly lonely libertarians in the House of Representatives, had a crazy idea Wednesday morning in the wake of President Trump’s unpersuasive prime-time speech about border wall funding and the government shutdown: Have the House and Senate hash out a spending bill, send that bill to the president, and if he vetoes it, they can override, or not.

“This is our system,” Amash tweeted, with the slightest hint of desperation. “We should follow it.”

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What an intriguing concept: Congress could do its job and ask the president to do his.

Not that it will happen anytime soon. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made that clear in an interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, ceding the Senate’s legislative function to the erratic executive-brancher he once described as “the world’s biggest jackass.”

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“If we undercut the president,” the senator warned, “that's the end of his presidency and the end of our party, and we deserve to be punished."

What an intriguing concept: Congress could do its job and ask the president to do his.


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The combination of an aggressive president and a supine Congress has rendered pathetic many a legislator who were once afforded at least some respect. Graham arguably leads the pack.

"This is the most presidential I have seen President Trump," he told Hannity. "It was compelling and everything he said was true."

I’ve seen more convincing hostage videos.

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And it’s not just old Republican hawks displaying constitutional obsequiousness to a man who chafes daily at what checks and balances still constrain the presidency. Many of the same young Freedom Caucus representatives who came to Congress spitting fire about Barack Obama’s executive overreach are now running interference for Trump on Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.

Former Sen. Bob Corker, also a Republican, came up with a most memorable phrase to describe this hibernation by the legislative branch when he accurately accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Ky.) last summer of blocking almost all amendments and proposed bills out of fear that “we might poke the bear” residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "The United States Senate right now…is becoming a body where, well, we'll do what we can do, but my gosh, if the president gets upset with us, then we might not be in the majority,” Corker said.

Sooner rather than later, we’re going to need Senate Republicans to reanimate their bear-poking muscles. If the country’s most influential conservative follows through on his threats to declare a national emergency on the border, deploy additional military on U.S. soil, and go on an eminent domain spree at the expense of Texas ranchers, then it’s going to take more than court challenges to thwart the abuse.

But even before we reach a genuine constitutional crisis, whether through authoritarian power grabs or whatever comes next in the Mueller investigation, Congress needs to resolve its own self-made crisis of deferring decision-making authority to the president. The U.S. is fighting undeclared wars all over the globe, the legislative branch hasn’t passed a proper budget in more than two decades, and the Senate can’t even screw up the courage to limit the president’s flagrantly bogus “national security” justification for imposing dumb tariffs.

So embedded has congressional cowardice become that in one of the last acts of his disappointing career, former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan actually smuggled into a farm bill a provision barring the lame-duck Congress from exercising the War Powers Act “with respect to Yemen.” Yes, in the farm bill.

In response, the House’s other lonely libertarian, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), infuriated his colleagues by demanding that every subsequent vote in the 115th Congress be counted, rather than rubber-stamped via unanimous consent. It has gotten so bad that your elected representatives don’t even want their votes to leave a paper trail.

Meme-inducingly robotic as they were Tuesday night, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) were right on their essential point: The government shutdown ends tomorrow if McConnell merely resubmits the same continuing resolution the Senate passed unanimously in December, and then senators vote the same way they did three weeks ago.

But Mitch won’t poke the bear, at least not until more than a handful of Republican senators are willing to force his hand.

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What about that new guy, handsome fella from Utah, who made waves in Washington last week by vowing to “speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions”?

Reported the Deseret News after Trump’s address: “Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was silent Tuesday night.”

Until Senate Republicans rediscover their tongues, let alone spines, their claim to “constitutional conservatism” should be greeted with hoots of laughter. This is our system. We should follow it.

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Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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