WASHINGTON — When a reporter asked how long Sen. Mitt Romney will be in the “doghouse” for voting to convict a Republican president, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell laughed.
“We don’t have any doghouses around here,” said McConnell, who then slipped in the political adage: “The most important vote is the next vote.”
The response gave a glimpse into how the Senate operates and how those who vote their conscience fit into what was described during the recent impeachment trial as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Indeed it’s outside the collegial confines of the Senate that the first-term senator is experiencing the harshest response to his impeachment trial vote.
Romney, a Republican from Utah, made history last week when he became the first U.S. senator to vote to convict a president of his own party in an impeachment trial. His lone vote was inconsequential to the outcome of President Donald Trump being acquitted of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
But the one-time GOP presidential nominee anticipated serious “blowback” from Trump and the president’s supporters nationally and in Utah. And the response was immediate, with calls for his expulsion from the party. The next day, Trump contributed to the vitriol in speeches at the National Prayer Breakfast and at his victory rally in the White House.
“And say hello to the people of Utah and tell them I’m sorry about Mitt Romney. I’m sorry. OK?” Trump told Romney’s GOP counterpart Sen. Mike Lee, who drew praise from the president for his support.
At that same time, Romney was in Utah where he met privately with state lawmakers who gave him a mixed reception of respect and retribution.
“We don’t have any doghouses around here. The most important vote is the next vote.” — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
But when the Senate returns to its normal business this week, Romney should find himself in friendly surroundings.
“The Senate is a very collegial place both within and between the two parties,” said James Wallner, a senior fellow at R Street Institute and scholar on the Senate and legislative procedure. “The only time I’ve ever seen a lack of collegiality has been when you have senators who are perceived to be undermining individual members’ electoral viability. And Mitt Romney doesn’t appear to be doing that.”
McConnell told reporters that Romney remains valued in the GOP’s slim six-seat majority. McConnell also signaled he can’t afford to let one maverick vote distract from what he wants his conference to get done before the November election.
“I was surprised and disappointed (by Romney’s vote to convict), but we have much work to do for the American people and Sen. Romney has been mostly supportive of what we have tried to accomplish,” McConnell said in response to a question about calls for Romney to be expelled from the Senate Republican conference.
Wallner, who is skeptical McConnell will let the Senate get anything done in an election year, said a person like Romney voting against the majority position illustrates what he believes is broken in the Senate and how to fix it.
He said deliberations over big issues usually take place behind closed doors where members are lobbied and persuaded to get in line and not exhibit their differences in open debate where they can be held accountable by their constituents.
“By voting no in a very high-profile setting like that and being the only Republican to do so, it shows Romney saying, ‘I am the one who casts my vote, no one else, and I am willing to be held accountable for that decision,” Wallner said. “That is a very, very important thing and I think too many senators don’t do that.”
Another exception to voting the party line is sometimes Lee, who is often among one or two votes against measures that he feels cede too much power to the executive branch. His recent blowup over the administration’s unwillingness to be questioned, behind closed doors, about the killing of an Iranian military leader illustrated his own penchant for stepping out on issues he’s passionate about.
“I think Utah is very lucky to have two senators, regardless of their specific positions, who are willing to put themselves out there and are OK with allowing their constituents to hold them accountable,” Wallner said. “I think it’s very impressive.“
Two differing views
But Romney’s impeachment trial vote sends a clear message to voters that Utah’s two Republican senators don’t walk in lockstep.
Before the trial began both senators approached the impeachment case against the president differently.
Romney said he was “troubled” by the allegations against Trump but would reserve judgment. Before his vote, he told the Deseret News that he dreaded the prospect of sitting in judgment against the president and a part of him wanted to vote with his party.
But, “if you stand with the team in contravention of your conscience and the duty you’ve made before God, I would have to endure the censure of my own conscience, as well as the disdain of history.”
From the time allegations surfaced that Trump had pressured Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden, Lee never wavered from his position that the president did nothing wrong. He consulted with White House counsel in formulating Trump’s defense in the Senate trial.
Lee commended Romney for standing his ground in the debate over calling for witnesses in the Senate trial. And immediately following the vote, Lee said their contrasting votes were nothing more than a disagreement and that “tomorrow is a different day.”
But on the next day, Lee’s criticism was more pointed and personal after Trump praised Lee for his loyalty at the White House event and attacked Romney, even questioning his devotion to his faith.
Lee told Fox News that he didn’t talk to Romney before the vote or since.
“I was surprised. I found out about it at the same time everyone else did when he gave a speech on the floor of the Senate,” he said.
“Neither the facts nor the law were on (Democrats’) side, nor was there any virtue or moral justice to the argument they were making,” Lee added. “I don’t see what (Romney) sees on this and I strongly disagree.”
Too early to tell
Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor and author of “Partners and Rivals: Representation in U.S. Senate Delegations,” said the heightened conflict between Trump and Romney presents an opportunity for Lee to step up and “save the relationship between the state of Utah and the president.”
“I don’t know if he’ll be able to fill those shoes, but that’s what’s expected if the president tries to take revenge on Utah,” she said
As co-chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign in Utah, Lee is in a position to shield Utah from any attack by Trump. And at the White House, Trump suggested he has no problem with the Beehive state.
Some Utah state lawmakers, however, have weighed in publicly to ensure the often unpredictable president knows they support him.
A bill to allow a recall election for Utah’s U.S. senators, which Lee said is unconstitutional, and proposals to censure Romney and “pay tribute” to Trump have been filed with the Utah Legislature.
Romney made a one-day trip to his home state Thursday to privately explain his vote to Utah lawmakers.
“It took a lot of courage to do that in the wake of what happened,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who is sponsoring the resolution praising Trump. “Primarily because many of us here are disappointed with what happened yesterday and disagree, at least to some degree, with the decision that was made, but we appreciate him coming out and explaining his decision.”
Utah’s state senators expressed little interest in going after Romney, or even in supporting Wilson’s resolution.
Rank-and-file Republicans in Utah are split in their reactions, running competing ad campaigns calling Romney a patriot and another wanting him recalled.
And it’s impossible to know how voters will respond to an episode so early in Romney’s first term should he decide to run for reelection in 2024.
But one Senate observer said Romney can take the heat.
“He will be able to defend his vote with conviction and authenticity,” he said. “And if he should seek reelection five years from now, it won’t be much, much of a thought then.”