Already in a struggle to find enough votes to back President Donald Trump’s agenda, Republicans are about to find the going even tougher after the firing of James Comey as FBI director.
Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and it usually takes 60 votes to get nearly anything done. In the coming months, the Senate faces already-contentious Trump initiatives on overhauling the nation’s health care system, revamping the tax code and, more immediately, crafting a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Even before the Comey firing, Republicans had reasons to stray from the party line.
Nine Republican senators face re-election next year. While only two, Nevada’s Dean Heller and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, are considered vulnerable, turmoil over Trump could have an unpredictable effect on the election. With controversy such as the one engulfing Congress this week, senators could be more skittish about taking tough votes.
Flake laughed. “Health care’s hard enough,” he said.
Even Republicans who expressed support for Trump’s firing of Comey said it could prove to be distracting to lawmakers as the Senate moves forward with the president’s agenda.
“That’s always a concern,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We have a narrow majority in the Senate and we have a job to do.”
Just how narrow that majority could be was clear Wednesday morning, hours after Trump stunned the nation by firing Comey. Three Republicans broke ranks and stopped a barely noticed Senate repeal of an Obama administration regulation on methane emissions from oil and gas production backed by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy organization, said the unexpected 51-49 vote illustrated how little room Trump had to maneuver in the Senate.
“I see that as firing a shot across the bow,” West said. “Trump has to take that seriously. It could spread to other issues.”
Such as health care. Just before the Comey firing Tuesday, Senate Republican leaders had expressed cautious confidence that they’d be able to get their own bill to repeal and replace Obamacare passed after the House of Representatives approved its measure last week. They also conceded they had a long road ahead, a need to bring together different factions of the party with different ideas how to proceed.
Asked whether Comey’s firing had an impact on the health care debate, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, “I think it already has.”
West said there were about 10 Senate Republicans who might break with Trump for various reasons. Some, such as Collins and Rob Portman of Ohio, are center-right lawmakers from more moderate states. Others, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Cruz, are hard-line conservatives. Paul and Cruz sought the Republican presidential nomination last year against Trump.
“Those are the people Trump has to worry about,” West said of the moderates and hard-core conservatives.
Other items on the president’s agenda could suffer from a deteriorated relationship with Senate Republicans. Among them:
▪ Trump wants to roll back or repeal the Dodd-Frank law regulating Wall Street. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is up for re-election next year, though is not considered vulnerable.
▪ Trump wants to sharply increase defense spending. Key players include Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who are frequent Trump critics. McCain is the only Republican calling for a select committee to investigate Russian interference in last year’s presidential campaign.
▪ Trump this week submitted 10 federal court nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Flake, Lee and Cruz are all members of the Judiciary Dommittee, the first stop for the nominees. So is one of Trump’s staunchest Senate critics, Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said he didn’t know what impact Comey’s firing would have on Trump’s agenda in the Senate. However, Roberts noted that in addition to the health care and tax bills, he’s working on a farm bill that sets agriculture and nutrition policies.
“All I know is to keep working on the things I can work on,” Roberts said. “This is outside the boundaries of the playing field.”
Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant in California, said the tension over Comey’s firing didn’t necessarily extend to every issue on Trump’s agenda.
It helps McConnell, Stutzman said, that Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is keeping his investigation of Russian meddling in the election intact and expressing skepticism about Comey’s firing.
Plus, Stutzman said, Democrats are still the ones with more seats to lose next year.
“The good news for McConnell, and frankly the White House, is that this tension isn’t exacerbated by having several incumbent Republicans with races next year,” he said. “Flake and Heller appear to be navigating these issues for themselves very well.”
West, though, said a negative public response to Comey’s firing could cause more defections within Trump’s party.
“If Trump’s job approval drops substantially,” he said, “it will make it more difficult to keep Republicans in line.”