Senate GOP dismayed by vote to boot Cheney
Senate Republicans are expressing dismay, publicly and privately, over the House GOP’s vote to remove Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from leadership, which some GOP lawmakers see as a worrisome sign of former President Trump’s continued grip on the party.
It’s not lost on them that their own leader, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has also dismissed Trump’s claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election as “repeated election lies” and they themselves are under pressure from Trump to find a new leader.
Many GOP senators, however, are keeping quiet about their concerns and would prefer to talk about other subjects, namely what they view as President Biden’s far-too-costly infrastructure agenda and plan to raise taxes on corporations.
It’s possible that if Cheney, who had eyed a run for Senate in 2013 and again in 2019, was a member of the Senate GOP leadership, she wouldn’t have been deposed.
Several members of the Senate GOP leadership as well as other prominent GOP senators expressed disappointment over Cheney’s fate on Wednesday, shortly after House Republicans fired her from the leadership ranks on a voice vote.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who urged his Senate colleagues at the end of last year not to support objections to the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6, said, “I hope that Republicans will continue to be the party that values free speech and doesn’t give in to group think.”
He praised Cheney as a “strong voice for conservative principles.”
“People ought to be able to speak their minds,” he said.
“To me, it’s about speaking the truth, and the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” he said.
Unlike their House counterparts, Senate GOP leaders led by McConnell have firmly rejected Trump’s baseless claims that Biden won the presidential election because of widespread fraud.
Speaking on the Senate floor at the end of Trump’s second impeachment trial, McConnell called the claims that Trump’s landside win “was being stolen in some secret coup” a “wild myth.”
“I defended the president’s right to bring any complaints to our legal system. The legal system spoke. The Electoral College spoke. As I stood up and said clearly at the time, the election was settled. But that reality just opened a new chapter of even wilder and more unfounded claims,” McConnell said on Feb. 13.
Cheney was stripped of her leadership post for saying much the same. But she went further earlier this month by criticizing colleagues who perpetuated what she called “the big lie.”
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system,” she said on May 3.
Senate Republican leaders say their party needs to move on instead of constantly rehashing the 2020 election.
“Reality is we had an election last year, we got an election coming up in November of ’22, and if we want to be successful there, we need to focus on the issues that the American people care about and not rehash the last election,” Thune said.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) regretted that his state, with only two senators and one House member, will be losing a spot at the leadership table.
“If you’re from a small state, to have somebody in leadership, clearly there are advantages of that, in both the House and the Senate,” he said.
But Barrasso added: “The House needs to make their own decisions on that. I’m focused on the Senate, where I chair the conference here.”
Barrasso’s comments reflect a broad reluctance among Senate Republicans to say anything that could provoke a fight with Trump and his supporters.
But some GOP lawmakers are getting tired of what has become a pervasive atmosphere of fear surrounding any question about Trump’s outlandish claims of widespread voter fraud.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged she is worried about what the vote on Cheney says about how the Republican Party deals with members who criticize Trump, regardless of their good standing on a variety of other issues.
“Yeah, I am,” she said. “None of us should live in fear of a comment that might be made. I recognize that we all have decisions and choices we make, but if I as an elected member feel that I cannot speak because I will be shut down by my party or my party leader, I don’t think that that allows for the type of representation that I think Alaskans [expect].”
Murkowski in late January said Republicans need to rethink and rebuild what their party is about and become the more inclusive party she thinks it was under former Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
“I still believe it, very strongly,” she said.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who serves in leadership as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, wasn’t eager to talk about what happened to Cheney.
“It’s House business. I think a lot of folks anticipated it,” she said when first asked about the vote to demote Cheney. “That was up to them to call that vote and do that.”
But after being pressed, Ernst said she believes in Cheney’s right to speak her mind about Trump’s baseless election fraud claims.
“I think we shouldn’t silence folks if they want to speak about some things,” she said.
A senior Republican senator who requested anonymity said the vote to punish Cheney “is bad for the party.”
“We need a bigger tent instead of a smaller one,” the lawmaker said.
But the GOP senator drew a key distinction between McConnell, who has also called out Trump’s fraud claims, and Cheney.
The lawmaker said McConnell has refused to get drawn into discussing Trump’s conduct since his Feb. 13 floor speech, while Cheney has revisited the subject and called out Republicans who have endorsed Trump’s dubious claims.
“If she’s representing the conference, the argument is, she should be uniting the conference, and by pushing back and punching at Trump she’s not doing that,” the senator said.
At the same time, the lawmaker showed admiration for Cheney, calling her “such a strong voice for us.”
The senator said it would be a shame if Cheney was run out of Republican politics but also noted that “she says she’s not going anywhere.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a prominent moderate, also expressed dismay over the Cheney vote.
“I have said that I believe Liz Cheney is an honorable, courageous individual who did what she thinks is right, but it’s up to the House to choose its own leaders, it’s not up to senators,” she said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to impeach Trump in early 2020 and again in February, said “the best hope for democracy and for my party is standing by the truth and moving forward,” when asked about what happened to Cheney.
“It’s a very unfortunate course to remove someone who stands up for those things,” he said.
“The principles that I espouse and that Republicans like me believe in will at some point be on the ascendency in the Republican Party, that’s not the case today,” he added.