Senate Republicans are hunkered down and refusing to cross President Donald Trump on the border wall. But the GOP is more than willing to challenge the administration on foreign policy and national security.
On Wednesday, 11 GOP senators crossed party lines to vote against lifting sanctions on Russia. The effort failed under the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. But the defection was far larger the Trump administration has experienced on anything related to the shutdown. And it continues a theme of Republican unease with the president’s international policies reaching back more than a year.
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The Republican complaints range from disdain over Trump’s tariffs to disgust over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria to a repudiation of the administration’s refusal to implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It’s a trend that has accelerated over the past six months, even as centrists in both parties struggle to get Republicans to sign onto efforts to reopen the government without new wall funding.
“We’ve got a lot of people who know a lot about foreign policy and have strongly held positions and are willing to challenge some of the administration’s views and policies,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. Those Republicans think “they can have some influence over the administration on that. On the border, you know where the president is and you know where the Democrats are and there’s nothing really in between.”
On Wednesday, a diverse group of Republicans rebuked the Trump administration’s effort to lift sanctions on companies linked to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. There were two Republicans who have called for an immediate end to the shutdown — Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado — but the rest of the dissenters are not typically associated with bucking the president.
John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) voted to keep the sanctions, and neither senator typically makes waves going against the president. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) are among the senators who are closest to Trump, and they also voted against him.
Treasury officials tried to make the case that the companies receiving sanctions relief had made major changes to blunt Deripaska’s influence — evidence that the sanctions had worked to put a squeeze on the billionaire oligarch. Deripaska is connected to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
But many Republicans didn’t buy it.
“We need to hold the Russians accountable here for their actions. I think it’s important that we look at if these sanctions are delivering the desired outcomes and changing behavior. I haven’t seen that yet,” said Daines, who visited Russia last year with other GOP senators. “I support the president on border security. I just have a difference on these sanctions.”
Treasury targeted the companies under a 2017 law intended to strengthen sanctions against Russia and limit the president’s power to remove them. The administration notified Congress of its plans to ease the sanctions Dec. 19, opening a 30-day window for lawmakers to intervene. Time runs out this week.
And even Republicans that sided with the Treasury Department did so somewhat queasily.
“This is a hard vote,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who stood with the administration. “This is not a black-and-white vote.”
The contrast was painful for some Democrats to watch. Behind the scenes, they were trying to persuade Republicans to sign on to their plan to reopen the government and then hold a debate on border security. If they got enough signatures, Democrats and centrist Republicans were hoping they could make a major breakthrough.
But most Republicans were balking because of resistance from the Trump administration. Nevermind that nearly a dozen of them had just rejected an argument from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that voting to keep sanctions on Russian companies Rusal, EN+ and EuroSibEnergo, which had been targeted because of their ties to Deripaska, was a mistake.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of the ringleaders of the effort to end the shutdown, was incredulous when asked why it appeared much easier for Republicans to try and thwart the administration’s Russia policies than it is for them to break with the president on the shutdown.
“That’s an amazing question isn’t it? Why is it easier to get Republicans to vote against lifting sanctions on a Ukrainian Russian oligarch, than it is to get them to sign on to a letter that simply says: ‘Mr. President reopen the government and we will negotiate border security investments in good faith?’” Coons said. “I don’t have a good answer to that.”
But a Republican like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is a perfect encapsulation of the dynamic within the Senate GOP. He has no plans to sign the letter despite his own grievances with the shutdown but has been one of the leading critics of the president’s recent foreign policy actions.
In addition to voting against lifting the Russia sanctions, he’s also led the charge against Trump’s planned Syria pullout.
“I don’t view it as going against the administration. I view it as a deal that’s not good enough … the law says [Deripaska] is supposed to lose control of the company, and he hasn’t lost control of the company,” Rubio said of his sanctions vote. On Syria, he added: “We don’t want endless wars but the worst possible outcome is we leave, ISIS reemerges and we have to go back in.”
Because the effort failed despite some GOP resistance to the Trump administration’s treatment of the sanctions, Democrats were still angered by the result.
“Forty-two Republican senators chose today to stand with Vladimir Putin rather than the American people. The Trump administration has been shamefully and suspiciously weak on President Putin, and the Senate had a chance today to send a strong, bipartisan message that we won’t let Putin’s cronies off the hook,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Yet the bipartisan rebuke of the Trump administration’s Russia policies demonstrates that even as Trump Republican critics like Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have left the Senate, there’s still a voting bloc left that’s comfortable taking on the president on international affairs. Corker had led efforts to constrain Trump’s mercurial diplomatic style, trying to block him from imposing tariffs on allies and leading the charge in the Senate to cast blame on the Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi’s death.
Sen. Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican who succeeded Corker as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, voted in support of the administration. But he said it was the letter of the law governing the sanctions that was his motivating factor, not comfort with the administration’s plan to ease up on a close Putin ally.
“I’d love to say otherwise,” Risch said. “And from a political standpoint, it’s very easy to say otherwise.”
On Wednesday, two freshmen GOP senators, Martha McSally of Arizona and Josh Hawley of Missouri, voted to block Mnuchin’s department from lifting Russia sanctions. Trump campaigned repeatedly for Hawley last year, but for the new GOP senator from Missouri, voting against Trump’s wishes on Russia was not a tough call.
“I don’t think it was a hard vote. Because look, this is a bad dude,” Hawley said of Deripaska.