President’s Trump treatment of Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.), combined with his negligence in selecting cabinet secretaries, has placed him on a collision course with the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trump, no student of the Senate, does not realize how much he has benefitted by the Republicans’ failure to exercise their constitutionally established prerogatives. If Corker acts on concerns he expressed in colorful terms last week and reiterated as recently as Monday, he can set in motion a hearings course that would bring the White House to heel without exposing Republican senators to great political risk.
But Corker, an ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE (R-Ky.), also needs a win, and is unlikely to cast a deciding vote against his old friend just to spite Trump. Trump has also clearly has not reckoned with Corker’s greater leverage as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Corker has called the Trump White House “an adult day care center,” declaring that the president may set America “on the path to World War III.” Now the senator is obliged to act. He can convene hearings on subjects ranging from Russian interference in elections worldwide, to possible diplomatic ways forward on North Korea, to the inadvisability of allowing the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to hold security clearance, to the hollowing out of our State Department.
Trump has enjoyed an extended honeymoon period with the GOP Senate, free not only of criticism but also of standard oversight hearings. Trump has filled this void with tweets and friendly interviews, allowing him to communicate without interference from dissenting voices. He doesn’t seem to realize how unnatural this is. Republican senators don’t have to take heroic steps to mitigate his most destructive impulses — they just have to return to regular order.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), has ample reason to confront the president over the future of ObamaCare. Trump has pitted his own malicious market sabotage against Alexander’s bipartisan market stabilization; it’s up to Alexander to make HELP the forum for the debate Americans deserve. Trump won’t get a free pass; the GOP HELP roster includes Trump skeptics like Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Welcome to ground zero of climate chaos MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear Emboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration MORE (R-Alaska.).
Even if Alexander would wish to avoid confrontation, he will soon find himself with no choice. Trump is going to have to name a new Health and Human Services secretary, whose Senate confirmation hearings will take place in HELP, setting the stage for a high-stakes confrontation over policy and process. GOP senators will have to choose sides, and Trump’s nominee will be at risk. If policy issues are too hot, Republican senators can safely focus on process and conduct.
Trump’s exposure to critical Senate hearings goes way beyond Corker and Alexander. In the halcyon early months of 2017, Republican senators gently shepherded Trump’s cabinet nominees through the confirmation process. Now the goodwill is gone. Trump has attacked senators personally, encouraged primary challenges, and zig-zagged on key legislative initiatives, even as his approval ratings have cratered.
More to the point, the president created a mess for Senate Republicans by nominating ideologues without rigorous vetting. Unfortunately for the president, it appears the Senate will get a do-over; there are cabinet vacancies, a secretary under investigation, and a couple more in Trump’s sights. This may lead to an unprecedented spectacle — confirmation of a veritable second team of cabinet secretaries in the first half of a president’s first term.
New nominees will not benefit from the clean slate of a new administration. Instead, they will bear the brunt of questions generated by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s eclipse-watching foray to Fort Knox; Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosGOP lawmakers urge Cardona against executive student loan wipeout More insidious power grab than one attempted Jan. 6? Betsy DeVos not running for Michigan governor MORE’s enhanced security detail; former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s frequent charter flights; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE’s cone of silence; Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s flying colors; and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s financial legerdemain.
Has anyone advised the president that replacements for Zinke and Perry (if they were to resign or be dismissed) would have to pass muster with Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Murkowski? For those wondering why the administration is taking so long to name Price’s successor at HHS, or why Trump doesn’t simply fire objects of his ire like Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE and Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE, the answer may be that the White House anticipates that confirmation hearings are likely to unfold like trials.
Confirmation hearings offer Republican senators the opportunity to push back against an erratic president without the risks associated with up or down votes on legislation. The recorded vote is Steve Bannon’s best friend, an objective, quantifiable binary choice, that can easily be used to fire up the grassroots. In contrast, an unacceptable nominee can be sidelined by the majority leader, who can simply decline to bring the nominee to the Senate floor for a vote. Forever.
Oversight is not ideological. Meaning, it doesn’t provide fodder for Bannon to recruit primary opponents. All voters want to know that their tax dollars are being spent prudently. Indeed, with Republican senators now asked to support tax cuts for the rich, the need to demonstrate frugality is more urgent than ever.
All Republican senators have another reason to increase the pressure through hearings. Trump has made their lives difficult by highlighting and then punting the Iran nuclear deal, the fate of ObamaCare, a tax “plan,” burdening GOP senators who have not had convenient outlets for their escalating resentment.
Republican senators must be seen defending conservative policy priorities, but can’t afford to defend personal enrichment and self-aggrandizement. Trump has recklessly backed them into a corner. If senators like Corker, Alexander and Murkowski show the way, the Senate can regain its status in our constitutional scheme, and the rogue president can finally be reined in.
Drew Littman is policy director with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. From 2009‒2011, Littman served as Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenAl Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE’s (D-Minn.) chief of staff.