Senate GOP negotiators leave just as congressional control splits
In addition to Portman, incumbent GOP senators include Richard Shelby of Alabama, who took government funding across the finish line; Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard Burr of North Carolina, both of whom supported many of this Congress’ major bipartisan bills; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a long-time supporter of background check reform and an early proponent of the gun safety proposal; and Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, who just finished negotiating his last annual defense policy bill.
Their departures come at an inopportune time for Congress — with the party’s control of the House and Senate split and both majorities wafer-thin, the legislation is set to all but halt. But lawmakers will need bipartisan negotiators to at least keep the lights of government on and weather the inevitable crises. And the GOP is at a crossroads after its disappointing midterm performance, facing a presidential race already plagued by a scandal from former President Donald Trump and House conservatives threatening to hijack the president’s race.
« I think right now the Republican Party needs to straighten out, » Shelby said in a recent interview. “I think in 24 we will. There is a lot of dissent. »
Yet even in a chamber known for its ego, senators don’t think their departures mean it’s time to bury bipartisanship. Portman predicted retirements wouldn’t be « quite the change » some are suggesting and said he believed « others would step up » in the GOP to work on the other side of the aisle. ‘aisle. Of the 10 senators who brokered the infrastructure deal, he noted, he is the only one to retire. Blunt echoed those sentiments.
“Everyone is more easily replaced than they think or people who have been talking about it for a long time think,” the Missouri Republican said. « So I suspect the gap won’t be as big as it looks right now. »
The 118th Congress won’t be any easier as Washington prepares for a divided government. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised at a recent press conference that the next two years would be « a lot more productive than people think, » a much smaller percentage of the GOP in the House backed bipartisan Senate deals over Republicans in the upper house. There was one notable exception in the recently approved same-sex marriage bill, which 39 House GOP members voted to approve.
Schumer has yet to specify what bipartisan legislation he plans to pursue next term, but when asked about the retirement of GOP senators, he cited the latest spending package as a sign of optimism. for the next year. Other Democrats, however, have suggested that cross-aisle relations may not be so easy to replicate.
« I worry about that, » said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). « When you’re used to working across the aisle, when you lose them, it’s tough. »
And it’s not just about losing a handful of Republicans who helped Democrats secure the required 60 votes in the Senate. Many of the bipartisan successes of this Congress, including the recently passed updates to the Voter Count Act of 1887, were the product of « gangs » of Democratic and GOP senators, who made deals they then sold to their respective caucuses with the blessing of the Senate. leaders. As Portman, Blunt and others leave, most of the senators who worked in those groups will be back in the next Congress.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona), who led the Democratic side of the infrastructure bill talks and was a lead negotiator on the gun safety and same-sex marriage bills , said in a December interview with POLITICO that she is optimistic about the new class of senators. Sinema has already met with Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-Ala.), who will replace Shelby, her former boss.
“Am I sad that Rob Portman is retiring? Yeah, because he’s a really good friend…and I’m incredibly sad that Roy Blunt is retiring,” she said. « But I know the people who come to their place are people who are ready to work. »
Whether first-term senators will actually look like their predecessors remains to be seen. For example, Senator-elect Ted Budd of North Carolina, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who voted against certification of the 2020 election, will replace Burr, who voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment trial. During his campaign, Budd swore to « think independently ».
In most bipartisan votes this term, more GOP senators than the 10 needed would join all Democrats in approving the legislation. Nineteen Republicans backed the infrastructure bill, 18 backed the December spending package, 15 voted for the gun safety bill and 17 backed the manufacturing bill of semiconductors. Yet a smaller group offered early support for legislative frameworks, a crucial step in demonstrating that bipartisan proposals like the gun safety package could get votes through.
And there were still bills where every vote counted, especially in the longest running 50-50 Senate in history. Portman, Burr and Blunt were among 12 Republicans who voted for same-sex marriage legislation that the Ohio senator also helped sponsor, giving him just a cushion of two votes to break the legislative filibuster. And in a possible foreshadowing of next year’s fight, three of the 11 senators who backed a temporary deal to allow Democrats to raise the debt ceiling in October 2021 are retiring.
“Members who leave are among the least angry. And many, in many cases, may be the most likely to reach out and figure out how to do something,” Blunt observed.
However, the fact that the senators were leaving could be part of the reason why they were able to negotiate and support these agreements. Portman said not running for office made it easier to work on the infrastructure bill in Washington, without having to worry about fundraising or coming home to campaign. Not to mention the typical voter and party pressures that weigh on lawmakers in the upcoming election.
The next two years will, in part, be defined by the 2024 presidential election and whether the GOP really decides to leave Trump. Burr, Toomey and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who will leave the Senate in January to become president of the University of Florida, all voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. Other senators have been more willing to criticize the former president than some of their House counterparts, but few in the GOP are taking concrete action to actively prevent him from winning the nomination. Some privately hope his fledgling campaign will implode on its own.
Portman reiterated his prediction that Trump would not follow through on a 2024 run and would end up serving as more outside influence on the GOP leadership. And Shelby suggested a post with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin « would have strong appeal to a lot of people, independents and a lot of frustrated Republicans. »
« A lot of Americans who… support [Trump] politically, are ready to see someone else run for president, » Portman said, adding that polling data suggests that « many Republican voters are ready to move on to a new candidate. , whether it’s DeSantis or someone else. »
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.