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 TrumpSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Trump is failing on trade policy Trump holds call with Netanyahu to discuss possible US-Israel defense treaty MORE on defense and national security are becoming a rarity on Capitol Hill.

The death of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Meghan McCain swipes at Sanders: 'Don't you dare lecture Biden about cancer' 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. 

ADVERTISEMENT
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 CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' 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) ManchinConservatives offer stark warning to Trump, GOP on background checks The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers Cruz warns GOP support for expanded background checks could help elect Warren president MORE (D-W.Va.) praised McCain on Monday and signaled that he hoped Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Cruz to oppose Trump appeals court pick Senators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir 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 SessionsHouse Democrats seeking Sessions's testimony in impeachment probe McCabe's counsel presses US attorney on whether grand jury decided not to indict US attorney recommends moving forward with charges against McCabe after DOJ rejects his appeal 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 DurbinTrump defends push to ban flavored e-cigarettes: Let's 'keep young children from Vaping!' Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Overnight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare 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 JohnsonDemocratic senator warns O'Rourke AR-15 pledge could haunt party for years Conservatives offer stark warning to Trump, GOP on background checks Hillicon Valley: Google to promote original reporting | Senators demand answers from Amazon on worker treatment | Lawmakers weigh response to ransomware attacks 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 CoonsDemocratic senator warns O'Rourke AR-15 pledge could haunt party for years Scalise says it's unclear if bipartisan deal on guns will happen Senate Democrat says he is working with Republicans on bipartisan gun legislation MORE (D-Del.) over the weekend said there were five Republicans who he could potentially see stepping up: Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joins CBS News as contributor Trump: Bolton 'was holding me back' on Venezuela MORE (Fla.), Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir Congress set for chaotic fall sprint Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess MORE (Ind.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump's hurricane forecast controversy won't go away Republicans grumble over Trump shifting military funds to wall Hurricane-hit bases among those losing funds to Trump wall MORE (Colo.), Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseManufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank The Hill's Morning Report - Trump ousts Bolton; GOP exhales after win in NC Trump endorses Sasse in 2020 race MORE (Neb.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTillis places big ad buy as he faces wealthy GOP challenger North Carolina race raises 2020 red flags for Republicans, Democrats This week: Congress returns for first time since mass shootings 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 (Bob) Swan MuellerFox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal MORE; and Sasse often sounds off in frank terms against the administration.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse chairman subpoenas acting Trump intel chief over whistleblower complaint The Hill's Morning Report - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? Giuliani tears into Democrats after House opens probe into whether he pressured Ukraine to target Biden 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 FlakeFlake donates to Democratic sheriff being challenged by Arpaio in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says US-China trade talks to resume, hails potential trade with Japan, UK Joe Arpaio to run for Maricopa County sheriff in 2020  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 RischGOP senators say Trump deserves compatible national security adviser after Bolton firing Trump moves forward with billion F-16 sale to Taiwan Trump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China 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 CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Congress set to ignore Trump's wall request in stopgap measure Cruz: Texas will be 'hotly contested' in 2020 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 CollinsHouse passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance Senators say Trump open to expanding background checks Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall 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 SchumerSinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall Pelosi: 'People are dying' because McConnell won't bring up gun legislation 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.”