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Trump's GOP detractors placated by hollow, symbolic gesture

Republicans such as Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have enormous leverage to stop Donald Trump's abuses. They're just not using that power well.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) arrives at a news conference Nov. 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) arrives at a news conference Nov. 4, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Donald Trump's controversial trade policies have plenty of Republican critics on Capitol Hill, and a few weeks ago, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) decided he'd do something about it. In a seemingly bold move, the retiring Arizona senator said he'd use his leverage to block the president's judicial nominees until he was satisfied that Congress was addressing his concerns.

The trouble is, Flake is too easily satisfied. The Wall Street Journal  reported overnight:

With the Trump administration announcing a new round of tariffs on China, the Senate took a symbolic step Wednesday toward asserting its power over levies that President Donald Trump has already imposed. [...]Senators voted Wednesday, 88-11, to instruct the lawmakers appointed to iron out differences with the House over a spending bill to also insert a provision giving a role to Congress when the executive branch decides to impose tariffs on the basis of national-security concerns. The measure doesn't offer any specifics about that role.

In other words, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution, with no force of law, that effectively says it'd be nice if Congress limited some of Trump's abuses on tariffs in an upcoming spending bill.

And with that complete, Flake said the Senate can once again start confirming the White House's far-right judicial nominees.

It's at least mildly refreshing when some of Trump's GOP detractors show a willingness to stand up to their party's president, but I don't think these folks fully appreciate how leverage works.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another retiring senator who helped champion yesterday's symbolic resolution, warned Americans yesterday that Trump is "diminishing" the United States' international influence, adding that he's "troubled" by the president's antics on the global stage.

Those are certainly worthwhile sentiments, but the Tennessee Republican is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If he wanted to, Corker could use his position to great effect, checking Trump's power.

Instead we saw a vote last night on a non-binding resolution.

In case this isn't obvious, in a 51-49 Senate, individual members can wield enormous influence. With their party desperate to confirm conservative jurists -- including a pending Supreme Court nominee -- GOP members such as Corker and Flake could demand almost anything from Republican leaders, and they'd get it. That's how leverage works.

They're just not aiming especially high.