Washington: While much of the attention in Washington is on who will fill the Trump Cabinet, it is already clear who some of the most important people will be when it comes to fulfilling the Trump agenda.
One group will be particularly well positioned to either accommodate or infuriate Donald Trump: a handful of independent-minded Republican senators who have shown a willingness to break with the president-elect and have readily split with their own party on issues in the past.
Given the narrower divide in the Senate after the election, these senators must be kept on board if Trump and the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate want to advance legislation and nominations in the face of Democratic opposition. Some are already making known their readiness to take on the new administration.
“There will be some areas where I don’t agree, and it will be my job to represent a coequal branch of the government,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was outspoken in his criticism of Trump during the campaign.
Other senators who will be prominent in the “will-they-or-won’t-they” caucus include Graham’s longtime ally, John McCain of Arizona; Jeff Flake of Arizona; Susan Collins of Maine; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Ben Sasse of Nebraska; and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
They will differ issue by issue, and they will certainly side much more often than not with the Republican majority. And don’t count on them to block Cabinet nominees such as their Republican colleague Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Trump’s choice for attorney general, despite criticism of his civil rights record. They know and like Sessions.
They are poised to challenge the new administration and their colleagues on policy areas in which they deeply disagree or on some of the more extreme proposals that arose from the Trump campaign.
“If the president came forth with a legislative proposal that would ban all Muslims from coming into the United States, I would obviously oppose something like that,” said Collins, a centrist who wrote an op-ed article in August announcing that she would not vote for Trump because he did not represent historical Republican values.
She and others in this group are fully capable of building bipartisan coalitions large enough to assert control over an issue and push legislation in one direction or another, siphoning some authority from the leadership. Though House conservatives are agitating to eliminate the filibuster, most of the senators in this group would be reluctant to support such a move since they derive some of their own clout from the threat of that procedural tool.
Here’s a look at how the others besides Graham and Collins figure to be at the center of activity.
Alexander: As chairman of the Senate health committee, he will be pivotal in any action Congress takes to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and he has urged caution to his colleagues. He has forged a close relationship with Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the new Democratic leader, and has worked well with Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the committee and now No. 3 in her party’s leadership. He left the Republican leadership a few years ago because he felt constrained by a role requiring party-line allegiance.
McCain: He has made clear that he would oppose any effort by the Trump administration to reinstate interrogation methods, like waterboarding, that have been deemed to be torture. Given his distrust of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, he, along with Graham, will serve as a check on efforts to foster closer ties with Russia. As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, he will wield tremendous influence over Pentagon policy. Newly re-elected at 80, McCain has most likely run his last race, freeing him from electoral concerns about a backlash from the right.
Murkowski: As chairwoman of the energy committee, she is a strong advocate of domestic oil and gas production, but has also raised concerns about man-made climate change and its increasing impact on her state’s environment. Like Collins, she has a voting record in support of abortion rights, and she can be more of a libertarian than a conservative. Perhaps most important, she was re-elected in 2010 as a write-in candidate and clashed with the party leaders, making her something of a free agent.
Flake: One of the most outspoken Trump foes in the Senate, he took Trump on directly at a private party meeting. Both in the House and the Senate, Flake has challenged his leadership, and in some cases has won, notably on his crusade against the home-state projects known as earmarks. A champion of immigration reform, he is up for re-election in 2018 and is likely to be hit from right and left.
Paul: He has threatened to filibuster Trump’s Cabinet picks, and he previously raised the alarm about the reach of government surveillance programs, which could put him at odds with the new administration. He has urged restraint with US military power, putting him distinctly at odds with McCain and Graham in that area.
Sasse: A persistent detractor of Trump throughout the campaign, he seems most likely to challenge Trump in cases of perceived abuse of executive power. In a Nebraska op-ed article after the election, he urged a search for common ground with Trump, but warned that there would be disagreements. “There are absolutely some things that worry me,” he wrote.
The question for these Republicans is how many of those worrisome things will pop up and how far will they go to oppose them.