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Bill Straub: It’s well past time for McConnell, GOP to stand up to an increasingly erratic Trump

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There comes a moment in the old Marx Brothers movie A Day at the Races where a man confronts Groucho, as Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, and demands to know if he is a man or a mouse.

“You put a piece of cheese down there and you’ll find out,’’ Hackenbush responds.

Well, President Trump just tossed a whole slab of cheddar at the feet of Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root ‘n Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville, and his reaction, or inaction as the case may be, could foretell how events proceed over the next 3 ½ years.

It’s fair to say, with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House, that McConnell has struck a Faustian bargain with Trump – the president can proceed on his chaotic, abysmal, merry way, issuing insane statements, bullying those who note the king has no clothes, and ol’ Root ‘n Branch will remain mum as long as it doesn’t get in the way of his agenda.

So the president of the United States can play kissy-face with the Russians, belittle his betters, lie as if it’s more natural than telling the truth and generally send the nation into the sort of tizzy it has never experienced before and McConnell will act like a potted plant despite obvious harm to the republic.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

But Trump may have finally stepped over the line. The Republican health care reform measure, carrying McConnell’s imprimatur, collapsed like a toilet paper bridge under the feet of Chris Christie at least in part because the president stuck his nose where everyone agrees it shouldn’t venture – making policy, and if that’s not a condemnation of this administration, nothing is.

Then, after the health care effort launched off into the great unknown, Trump called out the legislative chamber ol’ Root ‘n Branch has been chosen to lead. Through a series of tweets – apparently the president’s thoughts, such as they are, fail to extend beyond 140 characters – Trump virtually ordered the Senate to address the issue yet again and then, for good measure, demanded the GOP majority deep six the filibuster, which, in this day and age, requires legislation to attract 60 votes in the 100-member upper house to pass.

“Unless the Republican senators are total quitters, Repeal & Replace is not dead!’’ Trump exclaimed in one tweet. “Demand another vote before voting on any other bill!’’

And after asserting that the “filibuster rule must go,’’ Trump tweeted, “Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don’t go to a 51 vote majority NOW! They look like fools and are just wasting time.’’

“Mitch M,’’ he commanded, “go to 51 votes NOW and WIN. IT’S TIME!’’

(By the way, has it escaped anyone’s attention that the President of the United States of America writes and speaks like a five-year-old? Just wondering).

McConnell unzipped his lips on Tuesday, telling reporters that “There are not the votes in the Senate, as I’ve said repeatedly to the president and to all of you, to change the rules of the Senate,” as it regards the filibuster. And he apparently has no intention of following the president’s friendly and helpful advice on health care, saying in the aftermath of the debacle it is “time to move on.’’

But after suffering the biggest and worst loss of his legislative career, one could wonder just how much tolerance for an abnormal president McConnell is willing to lend. Not only is Trump intruding on Senate affairs, he’s getting in ol’ Root ‘n Branch’s face, treating him like a contestant on The Apprentice who fails to survive the first week of competition.

It’s well past time for McConnell, and other Republicans, to read Trump the Riot Act, legislative agenda or no. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, a conservative who occasionally displays an independent streak, said as much in a recent piece for Politico, maintaining that the “unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.’’

Ol’ Root ‘n Branch, you may recall, is the leadership.

With Trump in the White House, Flake wrote, “the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals — even as we put at risk our institutions and our values — then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones.’’

If ultimately Republican principles prove so malleable “as to no longer be principles,’’ the senator added, “then what was the point of political victories in the first place.’’

To this point there haven’t been any real policy achievements for the GOP majority, Pyrrhic or otherwise, and no sure thing looms on the horizon. McConnell and his party hope to address tax reform in the near future but that could prove just as difficult as health care reform. Budget negotiations won’t be a picnic. Then there is the debt limit, a debate no one is anticipating with joy.

There is no hint of any campaign to replace him, just the opposite as a matter of fact, but McConnell has proved to be an ineffectual majority leader. After gaining credit as a legislative genius, a veritable Houdini, for blocking and delaying much of President Obama’s legislative agenda, McConnell is finding it difficult to get anything done even though his party dominates the government.

My friend, former journalist Barry Peel, recently reminded me of a quote from former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.: “Any jackass can kick down a barn door but it takes a skilled carpenter to build one.” So far ol’ Root ‘n Branch has displayed the construction skills of an armless paper hanger.

But McConnell can at least get on the right side of history by breaking with Trump, a legitimate danger to the republic, and identify him as the grifter he is, setting a re-charted course for what once was the world’s greatest deliberative body.

He might even follow the lead provided by a great Kentuckian, Alben Barkley of Paducah, who served as vice president under Harry Truman and, before that, Senate Democratic leader under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In January 1944, while serving in the majority, Barkley found himself at loggerheads with FDR over a tax increase to help fund World War II. The president sought a $10 billion hike. Barkley, who captured the leadership post by a single vote in 1937 thanks to Roosevelt’s intervention, could only muster the votes for a $2 billion escalation.

FDR wasn’t at all satisfied and he made his displeasure known, vetoing what he considered an inadequate bill and complaining that the measure provided “relief not for the needy, but for the greedy.’’

The Republican health care reform measure, carrying McConnell’s imprimatur, collapsed like a toilet paper bridge under the feet of Chris Christie at least in part because the president stuck his nose where everyone agrees it shouldn’t venture – making policy, and if that’s not a condemnation of this administration, nothing is.

Barkley took to the floor the following day and declared that the president’s veto statement constituted a “calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every member of Congress.” The next day he appeared before the Senate Democratic Caucus and resigned his leadership post.

He wasn’t out of the job long. Barkley was unanimously re-elected to serve as leader that same day. Even Roosevelt sent a telegram prevailing upon him to reconsider. The Senate joined the House in overriding the veto.

Now Trump is certainly no FDR — he’s closer to Goober Pyle in Mayberry RFD. And McConnell has a fer piece to go if he hopes to match Barkley’s accomplishments. But ‘ol Root ‘n Branch has a sworn duty to stand up to a run amok president.

McConnell has a well-earned and deserved reputation for placing party before country. Confronting Trump, which seems inevitable, could serve him well in reversing that perception. For a moment this week he seemed to be headed in that direction.

In a rare bit of candor, he told reporters, “It’s pretty obvious that our problem on health care was not the Democrats. We didn’t have 50 Republicans.” And it was announced that a Senate committee will begin hearings on health care reform in September with input from the loyal opposition.

But then he returned to being the same old Mitch we all adore, announcing that Republicans will go it alone on tax reform, looking to get it passed with only GOP votes. The reason? Democrats, in a letter, warned against cutting taxes for the upper one percent of wage earners.

The leopard hasn’t changed its spots. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the turtle is recoiling back into its shell.

Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Marv Dunn says:

    Considering who’s in the white house, maybe its a good thing that McConnell can’t get anything done.

  2. Chris Rachford says:

    Take a way Mr. Straub’s childish, vitriolic, and often unsubstantiated whining about the President, Senator McConnell, and the republicans you are left with four takeaways from this long winded oped.

    First, Mr. Straub believes Trump should not be “making policy”. This notion totally ignores the idea that the elected President has always been the defacto leader of his party and sets the policy for that party. We just lived through 8 years of a President who touted the fact that he had a “pen and a phone” to circumvent a congress that he did not believe was instituting his policies.

    Second, it bothers Mr. Straub that “Trump virtually ordered the Senate to address the issue yet again”. Does a “virtual” order carry any real weight? Based on the actions of the Senate it would seem not. By definition a “virtual” order carries no more weight than a wish or hope.

    Then, Mr. Straub was upset that Trump “demanded the GOP majority deep six the filibuster”. Was this “demand” anymore binding than his “virtual” order? There’s no evidence in the actions of the Senate. Wasn’t Trump just asking for the Senate to bring their rules back in line with the Constitution. Even Mr. Straub admits that, “in this day and age” the requirement is for “legislation to attract 60 votes”. Confirming that the rules of the Senate change over time and that the 60 vote requirement is a fairly recent development.

    Finally, it appears that Mr. Straub’s solution to the legislative problems is more republican in-fighting. After 8 years of the democrats marching in lock step with a President who let the republicans know that elections have consequences stating “we won” and they could come along but would have to “sit in the back of the bus”. Hypocrisy?

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