The Alaska Fix: How the Senate Could Fix Healthcare & Govern in the Trump Era

The Senate is broken. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (who has already lost a primary only to win a general election) should consider The Alaska Fix for the good of the country. Three senators could put the Senate under new management (like the Alaska House of Representatives). (Senate photo)

Guest Commentary

Published July 24, 2017

The Senate is broken. Republicans control 52 seats only part of the time. Enough votes to win a majority and pass a judicial nominee. But not enough votes to fix the healthcare legislation sent up by the House. Or, more important, not enough votes to govern. Watch that problem grow on issues ranging from the federal budget to raising the debt limit.

The latest plan is a doomed vote on healthcare. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that “as of today we simply do not have 50 senators who can agree on what ought to replace the existing law.” His response is to demand a vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a plan to pass a replacement bill later. The old kick-the-can-down-the-road approach. But first a vote — and already at least three senators have said they will oppose a motion to proceed so there will not even be a debate.

The Senate will be on record. And we will know which Republicans are more loyal to their party than the country. Then, the thinking goes, Republican voters could punish those members next election with primary challenges. (Already the White House is shopping for a candidate to run against Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.)

Mark Trahant

This is governing in the Trump era. Make that, this is not governing in the Trump era. The twist in this story is that the majority of the Senate wants to work together, find common ground, and move on. The majority in the Senate could pass a budget. A majority in the Senate would raise the debt limit. And, most important, the majority of the Senate would act as a constitutional check on the executive branch.

This is actually what senators say they want. And get this: More than 70 percent of the public want bipartisan cooperation, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Even 46 percent of Trump supporters say “they want to see Republicans work with Democrats to improve the Affordable Care Act — statistically tied with the 47% who would rather see Republicans continue working on their own plan to repeal and replace it.”

Meanwhile the White House is blaming Democrats for the failure to get 52 Republican votes. (Logic be damned.) And President Trump’s is again saying just let Obamacare fail (with his management help). He said: “It will be a lot easier. … We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

Same story from Republican leaders across the board. McConnell has used “working with Democrats” as kind of a threat. The message is GOP loyalty is more important than governing.

Enough.

The Senate could get back on track by picking up a lesson from Alaska: Choose to govern.

The Senate could function again if the majority — Republicans and Democrats — came together to lead. This is how it works in the Alaska House of Representatives; a governing caucus brings together 17 Democrats, 3 Republicans, and 2 independents.

A new Senate independent bloc could work the same way.

It would only take 3 Republicans to make it so. They’d join all of the Senate’s Democrats and independents to run the show. You could start with Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and, since he’s so unpopular at the White House, Jeff Flake from Arizona. Either Murkowski or Collins would make a fine Majority Leader. (Yes, there will be retaliation from Republican loyalists. But even that might not work. Murkowski already knows what it’s like to lose a Republican primary only to win the general election.)

The Senate would be the counterweight to a Trump administration out of control.

This would mean new committee chairs, including Democrats. Imagine Patty Murray in charge of heath care legislation.  Or Bernie Sanders calling the shots on the budget. And Indian Affairs would be chaired by Tom Udall. A new day.

There is precedent. In 2001 the Senate was divided equally among Democrats and Republicans. The leadership went to Republicans because Richard Cheney was Vice President and could cast the deciding vote. But in May 2001 Vermont Sen. James Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent. One Senator flipped control from the Republicans to the Democrats in the middle of a session.

Jeffords’ obituary in The New York Times put it this way: “As chairman of the Education and Labor Committee … he had become frustrated by what he viewed as Republican parsimony.” As the dictionary puts it parsimony is cheap to the point of stinginess. True today. But then, like now, Republicans weren’t serious about governing. So for the good of the country — politics be damned — Jeffords placed the Senate under new management.

It’s time for new management in the Senate.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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