Senate Republicans Start to Show Trump Some Backbone — But Not When It Comes To War

Amidst talk of war with North Korea, there’s been precious little said by senators about the Constitution’s requirement that the president come to them for approval before he acts.

If I’m remembering my science correctly from school, there were “lower vertebrates” and “higher vertebrates,” and the lower ones have backbones, just softer ones.

Google quasi-confirms my memory. The lower vertebrates are fish and amphibians that lay their eggs in water. Anamniotes, to use the technical term. They include bony fishes and “cartilaginous” fishes, whose skeletons are made of cartilage. The higher vertebrates are all of us earthbound mammals, from you and me and young Alexis Olympia Ohanian (Serena’s new daughter) to bears to beavers to iguanas. We have actual backbones.

I was reminded of ninth-grade (or whatever) science because it does now seem that, on a handful of fronts, some Capitol Hill Republicans are at least developing some cartilage. It started in late July, when John McCain issued his dramatic thumbs down on health care. It extends, gingerly, to the Russia probe. Just this week came the news that the Senate intel panel probing Russiagate is prepared to ask Facebook executives to detail Russian activity on the site during last year’s campaign. Republican committee chairman Richard Burr didn’t exactly sound like Senator Harry Truman blistering away at 1940s war profiteers, but he did at least say: “Now that we've opened up this avenue of social media, it's of great interest for us to get a full accounting from everyone who operates in the space if in fact foreign money found its way in to finance any of the efforts on social media.” Cartilage.

On the budget, Senate Republicans just defied the president on health research funding. Donald Trump had asked for a 22 percent cut. Senate Republicans voted for an increase. That comes a few days after a different Senate panel thumbed its nose at Trump on proposed education cuts. The administration wanted cuts of 14 percent. The Senate is looking toward a small increase that will also have the effect of derailing Betsy DeVos’ goal of greatly expanding school choice and vouchers.

These are all pretty big deals and in a magnanimous mood, we might tip our hats to Senate Republicans (the House people are another matter) for taking some stands.

But they aren’t the biggest deal. The biggest deal is war. This is hardly an academic question. There were reports late last week that North Korea was thinking of launching its next missile test last weekend. That didn’t happen, but the next one is bound to come fairly soon, setting off the next who-knows-what-he’ll-say tweetstorm.

A lot of people took note Tuesday night of some tweets by the experienced foreign-policy reporter Laura Rozen, the substance of which was that she had a source telling her that the Trump administration was working with some conservative think tanks and “quietly preparing studies on the aftermath of war with North Korea.” Aftermath?! What about the pre-math and the math?

Anyway, lots of people prepare lots of studies in this town, so we shouldn’t be too alarmed by this. At the same time we don’t need Laura Rozen’s source to tell us we have an unpredictable and dangerous president, so we should be alarmed enough.

What are the Republicans doing about all this? As I write these words, the Senate is about to vote on Rand Paul’s amendment to end in six months the post-9-11 war resolutions from the early 2000s. “I don’t think that anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes that these authorizations from 16 and 14 years ago… authorized war in seven different countries,” Paul said. He’s right about that. But his amendment is going to lose. And actually, it probably should, as the Senate shouldn’t vote to sundown the existing authorizations without writing new ones, which one doubts the Senate can do in six months.

But where are they on North Korea? Well, Lindsey Graham is all in. “I hope we can do this [with] diplomacy and sanctions, or war would be terrible, but if there’s going to be a war, it’s going to be in the region, not here in America,” he said last month. McCain said Sunday that North Korea has to know that the price for aggression will be “extinction.” Others have made similar noises.

Obviously, a North Korea with a nuclear missile that could reach the United States would present a grave situation. But that isn’t the issue of the moment. Most experts think they’re still several months away from being able to do that and face big technical hurdles such as being able to perfect a missile that doesn’t disintegrate upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere.

The issue of the moment is whether the Senate does what the Constitution says it should do and requires the president to get approval before he acts. So far, I’ve seen only one Republican senator, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, say outright that Trump needs authorization from Congress for a first strike on North Korea. Sullivan’s rhetoric been measured and appropriate. Unfortunately he’s not exactly a habitué of Washington’s green rooms and isn’t thought of as a leading Senate foreign-policy maven.

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Let’s hope that events don’t make him one.