The stunning upset victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election on Tuesday is being parsed by pundits and politicians alike, but the results don’t seem to have changed much for Republicans at the hyper-partisan U.S. Capitol.
On Wednesday, GOP lawmakers carried on with business as usual as they reached another closed-door deal on their bill to overhaul the tax code, which now includes even steeper tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But Democrats are warning them there will be more electoral consequences to come if they don’t tap the breaks on their agenda.
“Today we Senate Democrats are calling on Mitch McConnell to hit pause on the tax bill and not hold the final vote until Doug Jones is sworn into the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters. “It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam through this tax bill without giving the newly elected senator from Alabama the opportunity to cast his vote.”
The Alabama race comes on the heels of this November’s off-year elections, during which Republicans witnessed stunning defeats in Virginia and New Jersey: Democrats won gubernatorial races and captured many suburban legislative districts that in recent elections have been Republican strongholds.
Still, GOP leaders don’t think their party is facing the anti-Trump wave that Democrats are predicting, so they’re brushing aside calls to change directions and delay the tax vote until the new year.
“That’s pretty laughable,” Sen. John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, tells Rolling Stone. “They’ve basically checked out of the process form the very beginning, and we’ve invited them to join us, but now we’re at the one-yard line and they want us to wait? That just makes no sense.”
By losing a reliable Republican vote from the South, the GOP’s chances of repealing and replacing Obamacare next year have diminished. Moore’s defeat also imperils the president’s new call for his party to move on to welfare reform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
The president’s former counselor, Steve Bannon, who also runs Breitbart.com, is still vowing to support primary opponents against sitting Republican senators, just as he did in Alabama when he backed Moore over primary challenger Luther Strange. The handful of maybe five to six more moderate, or some say more independent, Republicans think the Alabama results show that Bannon’s self-proclaimed GOP civil war is dangerous for the party.
“Yes I do,” Sen. Susan Collins tells Rolling Stone. “Because those of us who are more moderate reflect our states and, in many cases, if we don’t run it is likely that a moderate Democrat would win. So I can’t imagine the party wanting to lose more seats.”
When Jones is formally seated in the coming weeks, the Senate will be comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, which gives the GOP only a razor-thin advantage in the upper chamber.
But Republicans still maintain a 46-seat majority in the House of Representatives, and the most conservative block of lawmakers in that chamber have flexed their muscle this year, showing they can get party leaders to move to the far-right if they band together as a voting bloc. Even after the steady election losses this year, they’re showing no signs of wanting to support a more moderate agenda.
“We’ve been legislating to the middle for two decades and that hasn’t gotten us too far,” Rep. Mark Meadows, the leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, tells Rolling Stone. Meadows says the internal GOP tug of war for control of the agenda isn’t going to go away even after Alabama voters elected their first Democratic senator in 25 years.
“I think really what you see here is that there is still a huge fight in terms of who is going to control what happens in Washington, D.C.,” Meadows says.
Other Republicans argue that after they try to wrap up tax reform next week, they’re going to move on to less controversial issues that are subject to the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate – so they say the Alabama results won’t change their priority list in 2018.
“The reality is most of what we need to produce here is subject to a 60-vote threshold, so it really doesn’t change,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think it changes the agenda at all.”
Democrats remain stunned by those admissions. They accuse the GOP of putting the party’s biggest funders ahead of the chorus of American voters who polls show oppose the Republican tax plan and other key agenda items.
“That’s because the Republican contributors are demanding it,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown tells Rolling Stone. “They’re listening to their billionaires; they’re not listening to the voters.”
With only 51 votes in the Senate, Democrats are hoping the GOP will reject some of Trump’s more controversial moves. They’re looking to lawmakers like Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – who support some abortion rights for women and who helped derail the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare – to remember the Alabama election returns next year and reject any ideologically extreme nominees that come from the White House.
“I think and I hope we will see more independence among Senate Republicans. Those who have shown independence in the Alabama primary, I think, ended up with a good place in history,” Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters at the Capitol. “Having been through a lot of these elections in the House and many in the Senate, there’s nothing that concentrates the mind more than the thought that you might lose the next election.”