Late. Ben Sasse’s (R-Neb.) expected retirement from the Senate is the latest sign that it’s harder to be a Republican critic of former President Trump in Congress than a loyal ally.
Sasse is one of seven Senate Republicans who voted last year to impeach former President Trump during his impeachment trial over the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. He is the third to retire.
The senator from Nebraska not too long ago was also seen as a rising star in his party and a possible presidential candidate. But that possibility seemed increasingly tenuous as Sasse’s opposition to various Trump actions grew.
Republicans who closely monitor Congress say Sasse’s retirement reflects growing polarization in Washington that has only accelerated since Trump won the White House in 2016. And they say there is less of a political future for GOP lawmakers , who will not embrace Trump.
“Trump has undermined our party. He leads a cult, and he’s a cult figure, and he’s only concerned about himself, and he’s done fundamental damage to our constitutional electoral process, and then when people who are willing to stand up against him, leaving the Senate, it hurts because senators should be able to stand up to someone like Trump. That’s why you get a six-year term,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (RN.H.), who was a respected fiscal conservative and member of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team during his Senate career.
Gregg said that so many senior Republicans, known for both their close relationship with McConnell and their willingness to be pragmatic to pass important bills for the good of the country, is a troubling sign for both the Senate and the nation.
“It’s not surprising. Congress has been taken over by a lot of people who are dominated by the extremes of their party, both Democratic and Republican, and it’s very difficult to get things done if you’re a thoughtful centrist,” said he on Sasse’s retirement. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some frustration there.”
Gregg predicted that the departure of so many experienced lawmakers will make it harder for McConnell — or any leader in Congress — to get things done next year.
“Complex issues … require people who are willing to cross the aisle and compromise and are substantive, and when you lose people like that, and you lose the center of the Senate — and the center of the Senate has always been rational, thoughtful doers , versus shouting — that makes it very difficult to legislate on complex and difficult issues,” he said.
Sasse is a finalist to become the University of Florida’s next president — a position he is expected to take. It would end what had been a remarkable Senate career.
Sasse often denounced knee-jerk partisan polarization in the Senate and earlier this year unveiled an ethics reform package to restore public faith in Washington.
It included a ban on lawmakers from trading stocks and earning large lobbying salaries after leaving Congress, as well as requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns and banning foreign nationals from funding state and local ballot initiatives.
Trump famously refused to release his tax returns during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns and during his time in the White House.
“Ben Sasse was one of the people who made the Senate work,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “And there’s a pattern of a lot of people who made the Senate work who are leaving the institution, and that’s not good for the country and not good for our democracy.”
Ayres suspects that Sasse and other outgoing Senate Republicans are tired of what he called “the toxic polarization” that has made it “hard to do the things that led them to run for Senate in the first place. ”
In addition to Sasse, Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), who also voted to impeach Trump in 2021, are retiring. The other four GOP senators who voted to impeach Trump are Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine) and Bill Cassidy (La.).
Lawmakers in both parties are preparing for standoffs over government funding measures and legislation to raise the debt limit if House Republicans, who are generally more allied with Trump, win control of the lower chamber.
It is not yet clear who Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will name to replace Sasse, who was up for a second term in 2020, but other outgoing Republicans could be replaced by the Republicans Trump endorsed in the primaries.
The Trump-backed candidates who are either favored to win or have a good chance of being elected include Reps. Ted Budd (R) in North Carolina, JD Vance in Ohio and Eric Schmitt in Missouri.
Budd has embraced Trump’s allegations of voter fraud and introduced his Combat Voter Fraud Act, while Vance said in January the election was stolen and Schmitt joined a lawsuit with 17 other attorneys general to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Sasse was an outspoken critic of Trump throughout his Senate career, though he toned down his criticism in time to win Trump’s endorsement during his 2020 Republican primary.
But after winning the Senate GOP nomination for Nebraska, he ripped Trump apart in a telephone town hall a few weeks before the 2020 general election, calling the president’s values ”flawed” because of “the way he kisses dictators’ butts” and ” mocks evangelicals” and “flirted with white supremacists.”
When he voted to impeach Trump, he declared that the former president had “lied about widespread voter fraud,” spread “conspiracy theories” and fueled those lies when he summoned his supporters to Capitol Hill to “intimidate Vice President Pence” to to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Burr and Toomey joined Sasse in voting to convict Trump on charges of inciting the rebellion on January 6, 2021, during his second impeachment trial. But several outgoing senators who have often been loyal to McConnell were willing to stand up to Trump in significant ways.
Retiring Sen. Ron Portman (R-Ohio) played a leading role in negotiating last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which 18 other Republicans voted for, including retiring Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Burr and McConnell. Trump vehemently opposed the bill, later saying Republicans who voted for it should be “ashamed” for “helping Democrats.”
Last October, Blunt, Portman and retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) joined McConnell in voting for a procedural motion to bypass a filibuster on legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid a national default, again despite of Trump’s opposition. Trump at the time accused those Republicans of “folding back to the Democrats.”
James Wallner, a former Republican Senate aide, predicted that McConnell may face a tough transition next year, with many of his loyal allies replaced by pro-Trump Republicans unfamiliar with the arcane procedures of the Senate and the nuances and challenges of getting bills passed.
“Just look at what happened after the 2010 election; it took Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to get a handle on the conservatives who were elected in the Tea Party revolution, Wallner said. “There was a lot of unrest and institutional uncertainty after that election.
“If you have a large number of members on either side of the aisle coming in, the potential to disrupt business as usual in the Senate is much greater,” he said.