As Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) break from President Donald Trump intensifies, the outspoken lawmaker appears headed for another intra-GOP face-off—with the leader of his party in the Senate.
After a marathon session Thursday night, Flake emerged from the Senate chamber frustrated with his Republican colleagues, in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). After listening to McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer (D-NY), trade barbs over a stopgap spending bill to fund the government through Friday, Flake had decided it was better to side with Schumer and the Democrats on a key dispute over government funding.
In an interview late Thursday night, an exasperated Flake—who is not running for re-election this year—pinned the blame entirely on McConnell and Trump.
“We’re not going to get any better, particularly on the [immigration] issue, by waiting three weeks,” Flake told The Daily Beast. “It just gives the White House time to agree, disagree, and go back and forth. We just need to pass a bill and put it either on the president’s desk… or just pass a Senate bill and see what the House does with it.”
He told reporters that he would vote against a GOP-led measure to advance the House-passed spending bill, which would keep the government’s lights on for four more weeks. It’s a move that essentially kicks the can even closer to a March deadline to codify legal protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally.
In doing so, Flake bucked GOP leaders who were warning earlier in the day that a vote against the House-passed bill would play right into Democrats’ hands. Flake, in a remarkable break with his party, said he backed Schumer’s approach, which was also floated by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS): passing a three- or four-day patch that would allow more time for negotiations on critical issues.
Flake’s frustrations boiled over this week after McConnell declared that Congress should wait and see what Trump supports before taking up a bipartisan immigration bill that could actually become law—a position that, according to Flake, gives too much deference to a president whose public statements on the matter changed within a span of two days last week.
“There’s an institutional prerogative here. We pass legislation. The president either signs it or vetoes it. We shouldn’t be beholden to everything the president wants,” Flake told The Daily Beast. “Obviously you take that into account, but you can’t just wait. Particularly when the White House has been going back and forth and back and forth for a long time now.”
In exchange for his vote on the GOP’s tax overhaul bill last month, the Arizona senator says he secured a promise from McConnell that the Senate would vote on an immigration fix in January. But this week, McConnell has been arguing that there is “no imminent deadline,” referring to the March cutoff for the winding-down of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump rescinded in September. Flake, along with Democratic lawmakers, have argued that DREAMers should have more certainty about their status and that some DACA recipients’ protections have already been jeopardized.
The senator helped broker a bipartisan immigration package last week along with five of his colleagues that would codify DACA and, among other provisions, provide funding for border security, including some funds for the construction of border structures. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) earlier this week said the senators, known as the “gang of six,” should go back to the drawing board because their proposal doesn’t pass muster with Congress’ more conservative members, many of whom share the same hardline immigration views as Trump.
Flake argued that Congress should not be subjected to the whims of a president whose positions on the issue appear to shift often. He said, simply, that Congress doesn’t know what Trump even supports—and shouldn’t wait to find out.
“Why in the world should the Senate be bound to what the president may or may not want?” Flake said, directly swiping at McConnell. “You put a bill on his desk and see if he signs it or not. Often you normally—if we’re functioning here—we pass something and then say to the president: sign it or veto it. Instead of saying, we’re not going to do anything until we know.”
The House and Senate will return on Friday to attempt to keep the government open. But with enough Democrats holding the line, those efforts may be futile. As Republican lawmakers set themselves up to blame Democrats for forcing the likely shutdown, they’re faced with the reality that a few of their own—Flake and a handful of other senators and House members—are also jumping ship.