Congressional Republicans were once noted for their defiance of the executive branch, mobilizing regularly to block presidential proposals. But that was when Barack Obama occupied the White House. They changed with the arrival of Donald Trump, who had his own definition of Republicanism and induced GOP officeholders to alter theirs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan often evoke Winston Churchill's description of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald as the "Boneless Wonder." But lately, some Republican members of Congress have given evidence of spines that they are capable of stiffening.
The most potent stimulus came from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, which raised suspicions that he had been killed on order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Trump professed agnosticism, issuing a statement that said, "It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
Republican lawmakers resented this insult to their intelligence. After a classified briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said, "I have zero question in my mind that the crown prince, MBS, ordered the killing." Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said only the "willfully blind" could doubt it — a jab at Trump's denial of the obvious.
Even before the briefing, many GOP members were in revolt over Trump's embrace of Riyadh. Last week, the Senate voted 63-37 to advance a bill to cut off U.S. military support of the war the Saudis have been fighting in Yemen. Fourteen Republicans supported the measure, even though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced it as a favor to the Islamic State.
The opposition goes beyond disagreement about how to handle the Saudis. The measure would also reassert Congress' right to override the president when he involves the nation in military conflicts.
It rests on the War Powers Resolution, which says that as a rule, the president may not undertake foreign hostilities for more than 90 days without the approval of Congress. The resolution, passed in 1973, has rarely been invoked, but Trump has given it new life.
He has also met resistance in his own party on his favorite cause: building a wall on our southern border. His campaign pledge was that Mexico would pay the cost of the barrier. When that fantasy failed to materialize, he had to beseech Congress, which has shown little interest in his vanity project.
Trump has vowed repeatedly to shut down the government if spending bills didn't include enough money for the wall. Each time, he has backed down. In March, signing a $1.3 trillion spending package that provided far less for it than he demanded, he vowed to "never sign another bill like this again." In September, he caved once again.
As another deadline looms, he is threatening a shutdown. The House has voted to provide $5 billion for the project, but the Senate has agreed to just $1.6 billion.
With control of both houses, a united GOP could have given Trump what he wants by now. But too many Republicans have been unwilling — including Rep. Will Hurd, who represents a Texas district that includes 800 miles of the border, opposes the wall and just got re-elected despite a Democratic wave.
Trump promised to zero out funding for Planned Parenthood. Opposition to abortion rights is virtually mandatory for Republicans, and Planned Parenthood provides the procedure in its clinics (though not with federal money). But the Senate has declined to go along, thanks to Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
Anti-abortion groups are fuming. "They had two years to defund Planned Parenthood, and they failed," Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, complained to Politico. "We worked so hard to elect supposedly these pro-life Republican officials, and we expected results."
Even on some matters that should be relatively easy, Trump has fallen short. GOP defections sank two of his judicial nominees. The latest was Thomas Farr, whose record on racial issues alienated Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate.
The Framers meant for Congress to challenge and check the president, not to serve his whims. It's finally dawning on some Republicans that there is no point in having that power if they are not going to use it.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.