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Editorial: Stalemate As Senators Look Ahead To The Ballot Box

The US, with its government shutdown, is now a disorderly democracy. Blatant disrespect between its executive and legislative branches of government is rampant. If only America had a parliamentary system that could provide some relief in the form of an emphatic vote of no confidence in its inadequate president.

In Washington President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are threatening each other’s prerogatives. Pelosi, who controls the venue in the Capitol where American presidents traditionally deliver their State of the Union addresses in January, said Trump should delay his speech until the government reopens. Trump retaliated by denying Pelosi and others the use of military aircraft for an official visit to Afghanistan to support American troops there and fact find. Tit for tat.

Pelosi and her Democratic House majority won’t give Trump the budget he wants for his southern border wall. Trump won’t authorise reopening the parts of the American government that have now been shuttered for longer than ever before: Today marks 32 days. A hollow Trump compromise offer was rejected over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the US Senate dithers. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has played a passive role as the crisis in Washington worsens. Despite agreement by his Senate colleagues to keep the government open while debate on Trump’s wall rages on, McConnell won’t agree to allow consideration of legislation that would restart the government.

McConnell, who threw out the rule book in frustrating Barack Obama’s attempt to nominate a justice to the US Supreme Court in 2016, has listed that cynical manoeuvre as one of his proudest achievements. He, Trump and US conservatives have all hailed the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the American high court as triumphs for the GOP, which can claim little else under Trump, aside from some deregulation and a tax bill that both favour big corporations and the very rich.

Trump declared he would “own the shutdown” in pursuit of his wall. Most Americans agree he does own the shutdown - and they don’t like it. Many therefore criticise the lack of any Senate action to reopen the government.

McConnell is secure as majority leader in the Senate because his Republican colleagues trust him to handle what matters most to them. That is their re-election. From that perspective, McConnell’s passivity makes good sense to his colleagues.

The problem for Republican senators is Trump has largely turned their party into his party. So even though only about 35 percent of Americans declare their support for Trump and his wall project, almost all of them are Republican voters. Since they are accustomed to being a minority of the general population, these GOP supporters turn out on election day and vote. And during the heyday of the Tea Party movement nearly a decade ago, they voted in party primary elections to throw out of office a number of seemingly well-entrenched Republican incumbents who did not satisfactorily support their positions.

In 2010 and to a lesser extent in 2012, some Republican candidates underestimated the potential danger to their continuation in office of primary challengers. They were defeated.

GOP senators have learned their lesson. Now in early 2019, pushing back against Trump and his ideas is to risk the wrath of his base, which has become the Republican base. Resisting Trump has already encouraged primary challenges to incumbent Republican office holders, and will do so again. That is financially and politically expensive for incumbents.

There are 53 Republicans in the Senate today. In the upcoming 2020 election, 22 of them are up for reelection. Of those, 20 represent states that gave Trump a mostly healthy majority of their votes in 2016, and will be expected to do so again, barring more damaging revelations about Trump that can no longer be ignored and force his impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, or that compel his resignation from office. None of those 20 is likely to resist Trump. The other two, from Colorado and Maine, may break with Trump on some issues to survive next year, but their potential defection still leaves 51 Republican senators supporting their president.

That means no support to reopen the US government until Trump gives his approval.

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