Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American | February 15
Monday federal holidays generally mean that not much gets done. Today was a bit of an exception, since we are dealing with the fallout from the Senate’s refusal to convict former president Trump for the January 6 insurrection.
For the Republicans, that acquittal simply makes the split in the party worse. First of all, it puts the Republicans at odds with the majority of Americans. According to a new ABC/Ipsos poll, 58% of us think Trump should have been convicted, and more than three-quarters of us—77%– think the senators’ votes reflected partisanship rather than the facts.
But Republicans disagree. Trump packed state Republican positions with his supporters because he was afraid he would face primary challengers in 2020, and those loyalists are now defending him. State Republican parties have censured a number of the House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump; of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict, Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) have already been censured, and a censure effort is underway against Susan Collins (R-ME), Ben Sasse (R-NE), and Pat Toomey (R-PA). According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 75% of Republicans want Trump to continue to lead the party.
But 21% don’t, and between 24% and 28% blame him for the January 6 riot.
That split means the Republican Party, which was already losing members over the insurrection, stands to lose even more of its members if it continues to defer to the former president. Already, the Democratic National Committee has prepared a video advertisement to circulate on digital platforms, highlighting Republicans leaving their party. It includes a clip from former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele saying that “when you’re losing Republican members and you’re left with QAnon and Proud Boys, you’ve got to reassess whether or not you are even close to being a viable party.” The video ends with Biden urging Americans to come together and to “help us unite America and build back better.”
For Democrats, the Senate trial put on display for the American public an impressive group. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) gave the lead impeachment manager from Trump’s first Senate trial, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) a run for his money as a model for brains and morals. But Raskin was not alone. Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-US Virgin Islands) and Representative Joseph Neguse (D-CO), relatively unknown outside of their home districts, got significant positive national attention during the trial, suddenly becoming household names. The entire Democratic team shone and indicated that the young Democrats have quite a deep bench of talent, especially in contrast to the younger Republicans, who seem to excel in media appearances more than in policy.
Democrats recognize that the Senate acquittal means there is considerable interest in an actual accounting of what happened in the insurrection. Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that she will urge the House to establish an independent commission, like the one that investigated the 9/11 attacks, to study what led to the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Members of both parties have asked for such a commission.
The Senate trial also gave powerful proof of just how undemocratic the Senate has become. Voting rights journalist Ari Berman noted that the “57 senators who voted to convict Trump represent 76.7 MILLION more Americans than 43 senators who voted to acquit.”
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted that the adherence of all but seven senators to Trump “should end the absurd talk that there is a burden on President Biden to achieve a bipartisan nirvana in Washington. If most Republicans can’t even admit that what Trump did is worthy of impeachment, how can anyone imagine that they would be willing and trustworthy governing partners?”
Dionne added that the acquittal made an overwhelming case for getting rid of the filibuster, which in its current incarnation effectively means that no legislation can pass without support from 60 senators. Thanks to the 50-50 split in the Senate, getting to 60 means getting 10 Republican votes. This is impossible, Dionne says, because clearly “There are not 10 Republican Senate votes to be had on anything that really matters.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is simply working around Republican lawmakers, starting with the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly stand against the bill, in part because it calls for $350 billion to provide aid to states and cities. But Republican governors and mayors are desperate for the assistance. Republican voters like it, too.
Last Friday, Biden invited governors and mayors from both parties to the White House to ask them what they needed most. The Republican mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, told reporters that he had had more contact with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the first weeks of their administration “than I had spoken to the prior administration in the entirety.”
Biden is about to hit the road to try to convince Senate Republicans to support the relief package, going directly to the people to sell his ideas.
The Democrats also have another trick to lay on the table to get Republican support. Today, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced they would back the return of a new version of so-called “earmarks,” more formally known as “member-directed spending,” in legislation.
These “Community-Focused Grants,” as the new lingo calls them, are funds that individual congress members can direct toward their districts. In the past, earmarks were made by lawmakers and were occasionally havens for corruption—which is what people remember—but even at their worst, they made up less than 1.1% of federal spending and tended to actually produce things that districts needed.
Democrats cleaned the system up before then-House Speaker John Boehner declared a moratorium on it in 2011. After the ban, the government still targeted federal money to get votes, but the power to make those calls shifted to the executive branch rather than Congress. For much federal spending, Congress appropriates the amounts but the executive branch decides where to spend it. A 2020 congressional study established that presidents use that money “to influence policy and support their preferred projects without receiving approval from Congress.” To that, we can add that a president targeted federal money to try to buy reelection.
In the past, congressional earmarks were a key feature in bipartisanship: they gave reluctant lawmakers a reason to support legislation they might otherwise hesitate about. The new rules will likely be different than the old ones in that they apparently will be targeted to public entities that ask for a grant. They will provide a challenge for Republicans—who actually like these grants, normally—because they will undercut Republicans’ stance against appropriation bills. They might also swing some Republicans behind the coronavirus bill.
Biden demonstrated national unity yesterday when he issued a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas in response to a request from Republican Governor Greg Abbott. Such a declaration frees up the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and federal funds to provide help to the region, which is suffering from bitter cold temperatures that have shut down power and left residents without electricity in unheated homes—a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. Biden’s quick response recalls the way presidents have traditionally responded to state crises, and the governor of the state in which Trump supporters tried to run Biden’s campaign bus off the road acknowledged Biden’s response.
“I thank President Biden for quickly issuing a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas as we continue to respond to severe winter weather conditions throughout the state,” Abbott’s press release stated.