The Senate Republicans’ recent vote to block an investigation into January’s insurrection risks further dividing the party.
Republican Senators voted to block the creation of a commission to investigate the origins of the 6 January failed insurrection at the US Capitol.
– Republicans’ vote-blocking efforts signal how Donald Trump is still the standard-bearer for the party and a kingmaker
– The Republican Party risks further fracturing into two camps: one that is ideology-driven, based on conservatism, and one that is individual-driven, based on Trump
– A presidential commission may now be formed, or the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives can pursue further action independent of the Senate
Republican Senators in late May voted to block a Democratic proposal to create a 9/11-style commission to investigate the origins and actions of the 6 January failed insurrection at the US Capitol. This outcome was expected given the Republican Party’s loyalty to former president Trump and the recent elevation of Representative Elise Stefanik (a New York Republican and Trump ally) as the next party conference chair. Former conference chair Liz Cheney was ousted after she refused to support Trump and called for the Republican Party to distance itself from the former president. Despite his loss in the 2020 presidential election, the Senate vote indicates that Trump remains the de facto standard-bearer of the Republican Party and a kingmaker for lawmakers hoping to elevate their status in Washington.
TWO PARTIES, TWO HISTORIES
After Trump’s second impeachment on 13 January, Democrats hoped to form a bipartisan commission to uncover a longer timeline into the insurrection as well as any potential involvement from Trump. The Republicans’ vote to block the formation of the commission echoes recent polls that show that many Republican voters continue to dispute the outcome of the 2020 election. These polls suggest that 53% of Republican voters continue to believe without evidence that the election was stolen from Trump, in sharp contrast to just 3% of Democrats. Meanwhile, Republican-led audits are continuing in several states, including Arizona, where independent groups like the Cyber Ninjas are contesting President Joe Biden’s legitimate win.
Some Republican Senators not only question the outcome of the election but also the events of 6 January. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has publicly downplayed the insurrection, calling the event a “peaceful protest” despite the deaths of five people. In an attempt to win over more Republican votes to support a commission, the mother of slain police officer Brian Sicknick was brought in as were several officers who defended the Capitol. Despite the personal pleas, Republicans voted as expected, arguing that the commission would duplicate the efforts of ongoing investigations by congressional committees and the Department of Justice.
In the vote, several Republican senators who are frequent Trump critics, like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, voted with the Democrats. Likewise, nine Republican and two Democratic senators abstained from the vote, highlighting the divisive nature of the event. In response to the Republicans’ filibuster, Virginia Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly has called for President Biden to create a commission to study the insurrection. Further action may also be likely in the House of Representatives, where the ability for Republicans to block legislation is much lower given different rules between the two legislative bodies.
The vote over the insurrection commission risks further fracturing the Republican Party into two distinct camps. One camp is likely to remain pro-Trump and will be eager to separate the Republican Party from its former standard-bearers like the Bush family, John McCain and Mitt Romney. This camp is personality-driven and based around the unfixed ideology of Trump, who was able to galvanize subsets of Republican voters — particularly white men without a college education — in previously unimaginable ways. The other camp, of which Liz Cheney and Romney are members, is a classical conservative to neoconservative camp that prioritizes limited government and a strong national defense. This camp is ideologically grounded and guided by the view that conservatism should engage with new and more diverse voting blocs without sacrificing its core principles. For the Republican Party, the greatest risk is that ideology is tied to the fixed belief in Trump, and not in conservatism. As long as a large portion of Republican voters continue to believe that the election was stolen from them, they are likely to continue to support Trump. As a result of Trump’s false fraud claims about the 2020 election, a sizable portion of the American public now question the fundamental tenets of free and fair elections, raising the specter of further partisan, and potentially violent, political battles.
On voting rights, the two major bills currently up for debate in the US Senate are unlikely to receive bipartisan support. While the Democrats control 50 votes in the 100-senate Senate and a majority with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, the ‘filibuster’ rules mean they need ten Republican Senators to support their legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is likely to test members of his party by changing the rules back to the unanimity system which would only require a 50-member threshold. This would allow Democrats to pursue legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act and voting rights protections, which would likely only pass on a majority vote. However, moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is unwilling to eliminate the filibuster in order to pass voting rights legislation like the For the People Act, on a party-line vote. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans do not believe that state laws passed after the 2020 election amount to voter suppression.
In contrast to the Senate, rules governing the filibuster are different in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans are less able to block legislation. This may help in the formation of separate commissions to study the insurrection, but it is unlikely to help advance the Democrats’ policy agenda absent Senate reforms. In the Senate, changing the filibuster rules would likely help serve the Democrats’ agenda, but it also risks further exacerbating the divisions between the two parties, making strict party-line votes more likely. Ultimately, the incentives for cooperation remain low, and compromise with the opposing party may even be seen as a sign of weakness.
For Democrats, the risk of pursuing an agenda that seeks to punish Trump is also great. A majority of American adults support Biden’s infrastructure investment proposals and the economic recovery from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic is making sizable gains. The re-litigation of a past election, particularly if it excludes progress on other policy areas like infrastructure, would likely hurt the Democrats’ chances for growth in the 2022 midterm elections. Likewise, for America’s adversaries, the insurrection remains a major weak spot in American democracy and a classic case of ‘whataboutism.’ For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the insurrection is a prominent counterpoint whenever the US preaches of the need for free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power abroad. The Republican Party’s talking points about the insurrection have also been mirrored on Russian state television, which likely relishes the internal divisions and apparent stagnation of the US government.
In an era of divided and even delegitimized government, intransigence is the most likely outcome in Washington. The commission’s demise is symptomatic of the dueling histories that both parties claim for the insurrection. As such, the battles of the 2020 election are likely to continue to be fought with motives that are seen as undemocratic by the opposing party and without a shared set of facts to enliven a robust, democratic debate. This will likely be to the detriment of voters of both parties and risks placing Americans into even more starkly polarized political camps.