Sasse’s expected exit shrinks Senate’s anti-Trump wing

Joyful. Ben Sasse’s (R-Neb.) expected retirement from the Senate is the latest sign that is it harder to be a Republican critic of former President Trump in Congress than a loyal ally.

Sasse is one of seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict former President Trump last year during his impeachment trial over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. He’s the third to retire.

The Nebraskan senator not that long ago was also seen as a rising star in his party and a possible presidential candidate. But that possibility seemed more and more faint as Sasse’s opposition to various Trump actions grew.

Republicans who closely follow Congress say Sasse’s retirement reflects growing polarization in Washington, which has only accelerated since Trump won election to the White House in 2016. And they say there’s less of a political future for GOP lawmakers who won’t embrace Trump.

“Trump has undermined our party. He’s running a cult and he’s a cultist figure and he’s only concerned about himself, and he’s done fundamental damage to our constitutional electoral process, and so when people who are willing to stand up to him leave the Senate, that hurts because senators should be able to stand up to someone like Trump. That’s why you get a six-year term,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (RN.H.), who was a respected fiscal conservative and a member of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team during his Senate career.

Gregg said the departure of so many senior Republicans who were known for both their close relationships with McConnell and their willingness to be pragmatic to get important bills passed for the good of the country is a troubling sign for both the Senate and the nation.

“It’s not surprising. The Congress has been taken over by a lot of folks who are dominated by the extremes of their party, both the Democratic and Republican, and getting things done if you’re a thoughtful centrist is very difficult, ”he said of Sasse’s retirement. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some frustration there.”

Gregg predicted the departure of so many seasoned legislators will make it tougher for McConnell — or any leader in Congress — to get things done next year.

“Complex issues … requires people who are willing to cross the aisle and compromise and are substantive, and when you lose like folks like that and you lose the center of the Senate — and the center of the Senate has always been rational, thoughtful doers, versus shouters — it makes it very hard to legislate on complex and difficult issues,” he said.

Sasse is a finalist to become the University of Florida’s next president — a position he is expected to take. It would end what had been a noteworthy Senate career.

Sasse often decried knee-jerk partisan polarization within the Senate and earlier this year unveiled an ethics reform package to restore public faith in Washington.

It included a ban on lawmakers trading stocks and making huge salaries in lobbying jobs after leaving Congress as well as requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns and prohibiting foreign nationals from funding state and local ballot initiatives.

Trump famously refused to make his tax returns public during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns and during his time in the White House.

“Ben Sasse was one of the people who made the Senate work,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “And there’s a pattern of a lot of people who made the Senate work who are leaving the institution, and that’s not good for the country and not good for our democracy.”

Ayres suspects that Sasse and other retiring Senate Republicans are fed up with what he called “the toxic polarization” that’s made it “difficult to do the things that led them to run for the Senate in the first place.”

Besides Sasse, Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Richard Burr (NC), who also voted to convict Trump in 2021, are retiring. The other four GOP senators who voted to convict Trump are Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Bill Cassidy (La.).

Lawmakers in both parties are bracing themselves for standoffs over government funding measures and legislation to raise the debt limit if House Republicans, who are generally more allied with Trump, win control of the lower chamber.

It’s not yet clear who Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will appoint to replace Sasse, who was reelected to a second term in 2020, but other retiring Republicans may be replaced by Republicans Trump endorsed in the primaries.

Those Trump-backed candidates, who are either favored to win or have a good chance of being elected, include Rep. Ted Budd (R) in North Carolina, JD Vance in Ohio and Eric Schmitt in Missouri.

Budd has embraced Trump’s claims of election fraud and introduced his Combat Voter Fraud Act, while Vance said in January the election was stolen and Schmitt joined a lawsuit with 17 other state attorneys general to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Sasse was an outspoken critic of Trump throughout his Senate career, though he toned down his criticisms in time to win Trump’s endorsement during his 2020 Republican primary.

But after clinching the Senate GOP nomination for Nebraska, he ripped Trump apart at a telephone town hall a few weeks before the 2020 general election, calling the president’s values ​​“deficient” because of “the way he kisses dictators’ butts” and “mocks evangelicals ” and “flirted with white supremacists.”

When he voted to impeach Trump, he declared the former president had “lied about widespread voter fraud,” spread “conspiracy theories” and fanned those lies when he summoned his supporters to Capitol Hill to “intimidate Vice President Pence” into halting the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

Burr and Toomey joined Sasse in voting to convict Trump on the charge of hurting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection during his second impeachment trial. But several retiring senators who have often been loyal to McConnell were willing to stand up to Trump in significant ways.

Retiring Sen. Ron Portman (R-Ohio) played a lead role in negotiating last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which 18 other Republicans voted for, including retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Burr and McConnell. Trump fiercely opposed the bill, and later said Republicans who voted for it should “be ashamed of themselves” for “helping the Democrats.”

In October of last year, Blunt, Portman and retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) joined McConnell in voting for a procedural motion to circumvent a filibuster on legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid a national default, again despite Trump’s opposition. Trump at the time accused these Republicans of “folding to the Democrats again.”

James Wallner, a former Senate Republican aide, predicted that McConnell may have to undergo a tough transition next year when many of his loyal allies will be replaced by pro-Trump Republicans unfamiliar with the arcane procedures of the Senate and the nuances and challenges of getting bills passed.

“Just look at what happened after the 2010 election; it took Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to get a handle on the” conservatives who were elected in the Tea Party revolution, Wallner said. “There was a lot of turmoil and institutional uncertainty after that election.

“If you have a large number of members on either side of the aisle come in, the potential for disrupting business as usual in the Senate is a lot greater,” he said.

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