The Senate is broken. Republicans control 52 seats only part of the time. That’s enough votes to win a majority and pass a judicial nominee. But not enough votes to fix the health care legislation sent up by the House. Or, more important, not enough votes to govern. Watch that problem grow on issues ranging from the federal budget to raising the debt limit.
The latest plan is a doomed vote on health care. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that “as of today we simply do not have 50 senators who can agree on what ought to replace the existing law.” His response is to demand a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a plan to pass a replacement bill later. The old kick-the-can-down-the-road approach. But first a vote—and already at least three senators have said they will oppose a motion to proceed, so there will not even be a debate.
The Senate will be on record. And we will know which Republicans are more loyal to their party than to the country. Then, the thinking goes, Republican voters could punish those members next election with primary challenges. (Already the White House is shopping for a candidate to run against Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.)
This is governing in the Trump era. Make that, this is not governing in the Trump era.
The twist in this story is that the majority of the Senate wants to work together, find common ground, and move on. The majority in the Senate could pass a budget. A majority in the Senate would raise the debt limit. And, most important, the majority of the Senate would act as a constitutional check on the executive branch.
The White House is blaming Democrats for the failure to get 52 Republican votes.
This is actually what senators say they want. More than 70 percent of the public wants bipartisan cooperation, a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll says. Even 46 percent of Trump supporters say “they want to see Republicans work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act—statistically tied with the 47 percent who would rather see Republicans continue working on their own plan to repeal and replace it.”
Meanwhile, the White House is blaming Democrats for the failure to get 52 Republican votes. (Logic be damned.) And President Trump is again saying just let Obamacare fail (with his management help). He said: “It will be a lot easier. … We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail, and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”
Same story from Republican leaders across the board. McConnell has used “working with Democrats” as kind of a threat. The message is GOP loyalty is more important than governing.
The Senate could get back on track by picking up a lesson from Alaska: Choose to govern.
The Senate could function again if the majority—Republicans and Democrats—came together to lead. This is how it works in the Alaska House of Representatives; a governing caucus brings together 17 Democrats, three Republicans, and two independents.
In 2001, the Senate was divided equally among Democrats and Republicans.
A new Senate independent bloc could work the same way.
It would only take three Republicans to make it so. They’d join all of the Senate’s Democrats and independents to run the show. You could start with Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and, since he’s so unpopular at the White House, Jeff Flake from Arizona. Either Murkowski or Collins would make a fine majority leader. (Yes, there will be retaliation from Republican loyalists. But even that might not work. Murkowski already knows what it’s like to lose a Republican primary only to win the general election.)
The Senate would be the counterweight to a Trump administration out of control.
This would mean new committee chairs and would include Democrats. Imagine Patty Murray in charge of heath care legislation. Or Bernie Sanders calling the shots on the budget. And Tom Udall as chair of Indian Affairs. A new day.
Then, like now, Republicans weren’t serious about governing.
There is precedent. In 2001, the Senate was divided equally among Democrats and Republicans. The leadership went to Republicans because Dick Cheney was vice president and could cast the deciding vote. But in May 2001, Vermont’s U.S. Sen. James Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent. A single senator flipped control from the Republicans to the Democrats in the middle of a session.
Jeffords’ obituary in The New York Times put it this way: “As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee … he had become frustrated by what he viewed as Republican parsimony.” As the dictionary puts it, parsimony is cheap to the point of stinginess. True today. Then, like now, Republicans weren’t serious about governing. So for the good of the country—politics be damned—Jeffords placed the Senate under new management.
It’s time for new management in the Senate.
This article was originally published by Trahant Reports. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.
Mark Trahant is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Trahant leads the Indigenous Economics Project, a comprehensive look at Indigenous economics, including market-based initiatives. Trahant is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and has written about American Indian and Alaska Native issues for more than three decades. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has held endowed chairs at the University of North Dakota and University of Alaska Anchorage, and has worked as a journalist since 1976. Trahant is a YES! contributing editor.