McCain’s death marks decline of Trump’s GOP Senate critics

McCain’s death marks decline of Trump’s GOP Senate critics

Senate Republicans willing to counter President TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE on defense and national security are becoming a rarity on Capitol Hill.

The death of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEarth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders MORE (R-Ariz.) marks the start of the waning of an already small group of GOP senators willing to act as a counterweight to Trump as the president breaks with decades-long Republican policies.

McCain, despite being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer in July 2017, remained a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy and national security under the Trump administration with his outspoken opposition to Gina Haspel's nomination to lead the CIA and his support of tougher sanctions against Russia. 

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The former senator didn’t mention Trump in his farewell statement released Monday, but he appeared to take a parting shot at the ideological differences that have decided the two men for years.

"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe,” McCain said in a statement released by his Senate office. “We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

His death raises fresh questions about who among the Senate Republican Conference will be willing to criticize the administration on foreign affairs, particularly as so many GOP senators have been wary of a direct confrontation with Trump.

Asked about who could fill the void, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.) said, “I don’t know, we’ll see.”

“Maybe I’m just being hopeful but maybe after the midterms things will change,” said Corker, who’s retiring in early January.

Pressed on why he thought that November's midterm elections might bring about change, he added, “I don’t know, but I hope it’s going to happen.”

There are few obvious picks for who could fill the gap being left by McCain.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOn The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed Pro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections MORE (D-W.Va.) praised McCain on Monday and signaled that he hoped Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars DOJ: Dem subpoena for Mueller report is 'premature and unnecessary' Dems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions MORE (R-S.C.) and others would step forward. Though Graham was a close friend and ally of McCain, he’s also aligned himself closely with the president on issues like Trump possibly firing Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe Memo: Mueller's depictions will fuel Trump angst Collins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump Trump frustrated with aides who talked to Mueller MORE.

“I’m hoping that Lindsey and some other people on the Republican side will step up and meet us in the middle,” Manchin told a West Virginia radio station on Monday.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.) told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that there wasn’t one senator who would be an obvious pick to fill the void created by McCain’s absence.

“Each and every one of us have to play that role in his memory,” he said. “I'm not sure there's one person that is going to grab the banner and move forward.”

Corker initially suggested that GOP Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying The Hill's Morning Report — Category 5 Mueller storm to hit today GOP senators double down on demand for Clinton email probe documents MORE (Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, could emerge as a check on Trump’s foreign policy. He later later told reporters that he would try to think of who could fill the space.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMenendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions Dem report questions State Dept. decision to revoke award to Trump critic Senate Dem calls on Trump to apologize for attacks on McCain MORE (D-Del.) over the weekend said there were five Republicans who he could potentially see stepping up: Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail Freedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers MORE (Fla.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungGOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions Senate GOP proposes constitutional amendment to keep Supreme Court at 9 seats MORE (Ind.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (Colo.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSenate needs to stand up to Trump's Nixonian view of the Fed GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback The Hill's 12:30 Report: Assange faces US charges after dramatic arrest MORE (Neb.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisPro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Abrams: Schumer has been 'relentless but thoughtful' about Senate bid MORE (N.C.).

Coons, in an interview with The Washington Post, didn't explain his thinking for each of the five. But Rubio, who ran for president in 2016, has been outspoken about Trump's deal with Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE; Gardner and Young are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Tillis co-sponsored legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE; and Sasse often sounds off in frank terms against the administration.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference Schiff: Mueller report 'far worse' than Watergate Schiff: Democrats 'may' take up impeachment proceedings MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also compared Sasse to McCain, noting that he used a Senate floor speech to knock his GOP colleagues for opening the door to Sessions being fired.

"You had two prominent GOP senators say, well, if he wants to get rid of the A.G., we'll help him get a new one, but let's wait until after the midterms,” Schiff said on CNN. “I was proud to see Ben Sasse take issue with that. That was very John McCain–like. We need people like John McCain now more than ever."

But Sasse has come under criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for being seen as unwilling to push back against the administration beyond a tweet or a statement. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin questioned how many times Sasse would "tweet something provocative and then do absolutely nothing to challenge the administration."

The dearth of Trump critics within the Senate Republican Conference isn’t expected to reverse course.

Corker would be a leading contender if he wasn’t retiring, and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (R-Ariz.), a fellow critic of Trump, is also leaving the Senate in January.

Flake told reporters on Monday that he was concerned it would be harder to find Republicans to push back on Trump’s foreign policy, and he used a Senate floor speech to urge his colleagues to mirror McCain.

“We have lately wasted a lot of words in this town doing and being everything that John McCain was not,” Flake said on the Senate floor. “We would do well to allow this moment to affect us in ways reflected not merely in our words, but in our deeds.” 

McCain, Corker and Flake represented the three GOP senators most willing to publicly call out Trump for his rhetoric, especially his warm tone toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his questioning of decades-old alliances like NATO.

The death of McCain and retirement of Corker, in particular, could represent a seismic shift in how willing congressional Republicans are to act as a check on the Trump White House. McCain served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) will now become chairman of the committee, after being acting chairman in McCain’s absence during much of the past year. Meanwhile, Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy Risch Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Overnight Defense: Air Force general tapped for Pentagon No. 2 | Dem presses Trump officials on Yemen strike | Pentagon details 4M border deployment cost Top senators warn Turkey: Choose between Russia missile system or US fighter jet MORE (R-Idaho) is expected to succeed Corker atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year.

Both Inhofe and Risch are considered to be more closely aligned with Trump than McCain or Corker, and less likely to use the megaphone their committee perches provide to criticize or attempt to rein in the White House.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (Texas) downplayed the likelihood that there will be a lack of Republicans willing to criticize Trump.

“I think senators feel completely free to disagree with the president on policy matters as they come up,” he said. “I don’t expect that to change.”

But Democrats, as well as some Republicans, are urging their colleagues to try to emulate McCain’s willingness to work across the aisle on controversial issues, even when they bucked his own party.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Collins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump GOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying MORE (R-Maine), a moderate senator who often breaks with her party on health care, praised McCain as being “very brave” for getting into the middle of controversial policy fights.

“If his death could cause us all to reflect on the way the Senate used to be and try to honor his legacy by not trying to constantly score partisan political points but rather work together for the good of the country, I can think of no finer legacy for John McCain,” she told a Maine radio station.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (D-N.Y.) read part of McCain’s farwell statement from the Senate floor and praised him as being able to transcend partisan battle lines.

“We can honor him by trying to carry out the principles he lived by. We can try, as he did, to put country before party. We can try, as he always did, to speak truth to power,” Schumer said. “And we can try … to restore the Senate to its rightful place in our national political life.”