Sen. Claire McCaskill’s new role as the top Democrat on the Senate’s homeland security committee could turn into a political high-wire act for the Missouri senator as she heads toward an uncertain 2018 re-election campaign.
The leadership post puts McCaskill at the heart of her party’s fight against President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, as she prepares to seek another term in a state Trump won by 20 percentage points.
The Missouri Democrat made her first move on Monday: She asked for an emergency meeting with John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s secretary of homeland security. And she wanted it within 24 hours.
She got all six of her fellow Democrats on the homeland security committee to agree to the request, and fired off a letter to Kelly. The letter requested instructions and legal analysis related to President Donald Trump’s Friday order barring immigrants and some others in seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States.
McCaskill and the other Democrats also want copies of any communications between Kelly’s agency and the White House.
The move is perfectly in character for McCaskill, an outspoken former prosecutor from Jackson County, Missouri. But her new status could mean political peril.
“The senator will have to find a line between holding the president accountable and obstructing what he wants to do,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a website that provides nonpartisan campaign analysis.
Gonzales’ has rated McCaskill’s 2018 race as a “tossup.”
“The natural instinct of Democrats right now is to take to the streets and oppose the president,” Gonzales said, “but if the senator walks around the main streets around Missouri, she’ll find a lot of people who want Trump to be president and probably don’t mind what he’s been doing in the first 10 days.”
Democrats’ liberal base is in an uproar over the order. Protests erupted across the country, including at Kansas City International airport. And McCaskill can’t ignore them.
“Democrats have enjoyed watching Republicans eat themselves alive in primaries but Democrats, their time is coming,” Gonzales said. “Their party is not immune from the anti-establishment fever, but also their ideological base wants more. They’re tired of compromising.”
McCaskill campaigned for Hillary Clinton for president and was a very vocal, public advocate for the Democratic nominee. But she has stressed that she doesn’t plan to be an obstructionist toward a Trump administration. She voted to confirm Kelly on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
“When it comes to well-qualified nominees charged with protecting America’s security interests at home and abroad, party labels shouldn’t get in the way of good public service,” said McCaskill at the time.
Then came Trump’s executive order on immigration.
The order, suspended the issuance of visas to nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya for 90 days. In the first 24 hours after implementation, the order resulted in the detention of at least 109 refugees and other travelers from those countries who held valid visas, including some green card holders with permanent resident status in the U.S.
The confusion that ensued at airports around the country sparked protests that continued throughout the weekend. The upheaval – along with reports that the White House had left Kelly and his agency in the dark in the rush to get the order signed – has driven a growing number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to critique the order, or at least its implementation.
“While I support thorough vetting, I do not support restricting the rights of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, in a statement on Monday. Moran and other Republicans said such far-reaching national security policy should be devised in consultation with Congress and relevant government agencies.
“It’s clear the order is being interpreted too broadly to block valid visas and green card holders,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, whose district includes the suburbs of Kansas City. “While a temporary pause in new admissions is appropriate — the President should work with Congress to come up with clear procedures to ensure that our refugee program can continue in the safest manner possible.”
The controversy might transcend party, making the political risk to McCaskill less acute, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, where she analyzes U.S. Senate and Governors races.
“The focus for somebody like McCaskill right now is less on the policy and more on the mistakes (the Trump administration makes) along the way, because you draw attention to the fact that Kelly wasn’t consulted enough. Apparently nobody was consulted enough.
The people who would be angry about what McCaskill’s doing right now “aren’t voting for her anyway,” Duffy said.
McCaskill’s Senate panel has watchdog jurisdiction over Customs and Border Protection, the federal law enforcement organization responsible for screening immigrants.
The letter to Kelly on Monday was signed by every Democrat on the committee, including Tom Carper of Delaware, Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Gary Peters of Michigan, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Kamala Harris of California.
The lawmakers wrote that they were “deeply troubled by this unprecedented order and its implementation by the Department of Homeland Security.”
The letter requests the names, titles and qualifications of all officials who were involved in the drafting or review of the executive order, including any political appointees, members of the presidential transition team, special advisers and consultants.
It requests all legal analysis related to the order and all communications within the Department of Homeland Security and with other administration officials – including White House officials – related to whether the order applied to green card holders, or legal permanent residents.
The letter asks Kelly to describe “when and why you determined that the executive order would not apply to legal permanent residents, when and why that determination was changed, and at whose direction each determination was made.”
The Democrats ask for Kelly to report any “processes currently in place to identify an individual’s religion prior to receiving a visa, admission or other immigration benefit” and “all legal analysis related to whether the U.S. government may request information regarding an individual’s religion prior to receiving a visa, admission or other immigration benefit.”
The letter urges Kelly to postpone implementation of the order “until these questions have been answered, and, more importantly, you have had an opportunity to ensure that the legal, policy and practical impacts of President Trump’s order have been fully and thoroughly reviewed.”