WASHINGTON, January 3, 2019 — Most people would not be happy to know they’d be unemployed within the hour, but with minutes left in his Senate tenure, Jeff Flake was all smiles.
The outgoing Arizona senator, who’d become a leading voice in the small movement of Republicans with objections to how President Donald Trump has conducted himself in office, moved about the Senate floor Thursday morning with the easy demeanor of a man who no longer felt the responsibility of standing up for a party that now largely reviled him.
After Vice President Mike Pence gaveled the 115th Congress’ Senate into recess for the last time, Flake chatted at the back of the chamber with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and exchanged words with both of his state’s new senators, Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
McSally joins the Senate after being appointed to fill the seat vacated by Sen. John Kyl, who returned to the upper chamber after the death of his longtime colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But Sinema, who will be the state’s senior senator despite being sworn in on the same day as her Republican counterpart, arrived in Washington the old-fashioned way — by defeating McSally in a hard-fought midterm election battle.
Though the onetime rivals will be serving together, they did not exchange words as they waited for Flake to escort them in separate groups of five to the well of the Senate chamber, where they were sworn in by the vice president.
Other outgoing or former senators seen in the chamber Thursday were former Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Richard Bryan and D-Nev., Larry Pressler, R-S.D, as well as former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, D-Mass.
As the Senators-elect were led by their colleagues and predecessors to be sworn in, another outgoing Republican known for his distaste for the president, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., shook hands with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Meanwhile, Senator-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the former GOP standard-bearer, stood quietly at the back of the chamber alone.
Though the now-Senator and former Massachusetts governor was once considered the leader of the Republican Party, he may have to become accustomed to being one of 100.
While Thursday’s swearings-in did not result in a change from Republican control in the Senate, other side of the Capitol welcomed a new era of divided government as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was sworn in as Speaker of the House, becoming the first person since the late Sam Rayburn to hold the speakership more than once.
With Washington in the throes of a partial government shutdown, it is yet to be seen when or whether the new reality will make an impression on President Trump. Until late Thursday, he remained ensconced in the White House issuing tweets about his proposed wall along the border with Mexico. Trump, who precipitated this now-13-day government shutdown after rejecting a bipartisan deal over a lack of funding for the wall, appeared briefly in the White House briefing room.
Trump congratulated Pelosi on her election as House speaker, although his appearance may well have been an attempt to redirect news coverage away from her.
Although House Democrats plan to move a measure to reopen the government on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has indicated that he won’t take any action to move the exact legislation the Senate approved by voice vote before Christmas, with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., warning reporters that the shutdown could go on for “months and months.”
But as Flake left the Capitol after seeing his successors sworn in, he told reporters that things could be “easier” with divided government.
“When one party controls, there’s an illusion that you can muscle your way through things, and you usually can’t,” Flake said. “That illusion is gone now.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been modified to add additional news about the White House press conference with President Trump.
Sen. Mitt Romney’s Criticisms of Donald Trump Highlight New Political Culture for Mormons
WASHINGTON, January 7, 2019 – Without even trying very hard, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has set off new questions among Republicans about Donald Trump.
But with his OpEd in the Washington Post on New Year’s Day, the re-emergence on the national stage of the nation’s Most Prominent Mormon will also inevitably set off new questions about Mormonism’s place in America.
Most political observers know at least something of the back-and-forth relationship between these two more-than-multi-millionaires. Call them both self-made men, with a little help from their fathers.
Trump endorsed Romney in 2012. When the tables were turned, though, Romney excoriated Trump in March 2016. But upon Trump’s victory, Romney issued a congratulatory Tweet. Then Trump embarrassed Romney by dangling an unoffered secretary of state-ship. Then last year, when Romney ran for Senate, he again accepted Trump’s endorsement, avoided all talk of Trump, and appeared to be running a Utah-based campaign.
Except for this tip-off: Romney promised to “bring Utah’s values to Washington.”
What exactly are “Utah values”? You can be as politic as you want, but everyone in Utah knows that means “Mormon values,” or at least the values of a state heavily influenced by (and still 60 percent-inhabited-by) Mormons.
Remember that Utah began its life as a theocracy, with Brigham Young, the second prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ruling spiritually and also politically as the territorial governor.
Before we get too far into “Mormon values,” let’s back up and make something clear. According to the current prophet of the church, we’re not supposed to use the word “Mormon” anymore, even in referring to the church’s members.
The church’s media relations web site goes so far as to say that “the term ‘Mormonism’ is inaccurate and should not be used.” It even downplays the use of the term “Latter-day Saints,” a long-approved secondary name.
This vigorous and even challenging new linguistic emphasis came personally from Russell M. Nelson, the faith’s 94-year-old chief. And it isn’t even among the top three most dramatic changes initiated by Nelson in the year since he was anointed as the faith’s prophet on January 14, 2018.
In April, Nelson presided over his first general conference, an assembly in Salt Lake, and transmitted to millions more gathered over television, radio and the internet. In it, Nelson and the church’s other leaders, the apostles, officially ended a decades-old practice called “home teaching.” The old program heavily relied upon obligation, and called for every male member of the church to visit a set number of congregants each month. A new, replacement program called “ministering” includes women as well as men, girls as well as boys. Mandatory monthly visits are gone, making ministering more of a “spirit of the law” service.
Another big change followed at the October conference. Henceforth, church hours would be reduced. Instead of three hours at church on Sunday (meetings to which both members and non-members are allowed to attend), everyone would now spend only two hours at church. The stated goal is to use that extra hour of time to study religious scriptures in the home.
A third major change, announced January 2, 2019, right as it went into effect, shortened and otherwise modified the faith’s sacred rituals in its members-only temples.
The key message threaded throughout this pace of dizzying changes by church leaders is a loosening of the “letter of the law,” and also a greater emphasis on equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys.
Nelson’s second-in-command among the church’s apostles, Dallin Oaks, and others have encouraged these and other changes. At a June 2018 celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the church’s historic ban on black members receiving the priesthood, Oaks delivered a blunt message to “abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children,” particularly racism, “probably the most familiar source of prejudice today [of which] we are all called to repent.”
Also, at roughly the same time as Donald Trump’s political ascent, the LDS church began to place a greater priority on the need to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees through its “I Was a Stranger” program, which itself was bolstered by Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert’s offer that the state take in more refugees, not less.
While the church doesn’t take partisan stances, it’s impossible not to see that the political culture which Mormons inhabit is becoming – by the standard of today – more liberal, not more conservative.
The Mormon Romney may once have been a “conservative.” But, when asked on CNN why he choose to articulate his character-driven criticisms of Donald Trump, he cited the occasions in which he had already publicly weighed in:
“The Charlottesville response by the President was something that gave me great concern. The support for Roy Moore in the Senate race was something I was very, very concerned about. His attack on the media, I wrote an entire piece about that.”
There you have the reasons for Romney’s core critique of Trumpism: Racism, sexism, and authoritarian impulses. None of those are “conservative” concerns, or at least concerns of Trump-world. Indeed, these liberal democratic norms are all well in keeping with where Romney’s Mormon constituency is increasingly finding itself.
Certainly this politico-religious realignment is no more complete than is the stereotype that Republicans are gun-toting church-goers, and Democrats are tree-hugging agnostics or atheists. There’s even some movement among other Latter-day Saint senators. (And this analysis doesn’t even consider the most powerful Latter-day Saint senator ever: Former Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.)
Utahns consider outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch to have been Mormonism’s “ambassador” to all things Trump. They indulged his over-the-top support of The Donald as being more in keeping with his inner Republican than any other inner voice.
And Mike Lee, Utah’s other senator – and who, like Romney, refused to vote for Trump – is edging closer by the day to Donald Trump. Even this, though, may be driven by the exception, rather than the rule: Trump’s sudden willingness in December to support the landmark criminal and sentencing reform package long championed by Sen. Lee.
If Romney is stepping into any other Mormon senator’s shoes, it’s those of outgoing Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, whose criticisms of Trump have arguably cost him his political career in the state. Arizona, which is only 5 percent LDS, was more wary of immigration than Utah. And yet – as with last November’s senate victory by the Democrats – even Arizona is increasingly having second thoughts about Donald Trump.
The fight is clearly on for the soul of the conservatism within the Republican Party. And with Mitt Romney’s once again raising the stakes on the unsavory parts of Trumpism, we should see greater discussion about the role that Latter-day Saints are playing in opposition to it.
Late Senate Confirmation on Wednesday Brings FCC Back to Five Commissioners, a First Since 2017
WASHINGTON, January 3, 2019 – The Senate on Wednesday night confirmed Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr to another term at the agency, and confirmed Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic appointee, to begin serving as a commissioner at the agency.
The move means that the agency will finally have a full house of five commissioners, a first since the beginning of the Trump administration in early 2017.
While it was uncertain if the Senate would be able to act before the conclusion of the 115th Congress at Noon on Thursday, the two senators who had been objecting to the appointments – Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.V. – had previously lifted their objections, or “holds,” on the nominations.
If the Senate had not acted on Wednesday or Thursday morning, President Trump would need to make re-appointments to the position.
Manchin had previously stated that he released his hold after obtaining a commitment from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai regarding the mobility fund auction of the agency’s Universal Service Fund. Sullivan stated that he had received reassurances from Pai about the Rural Health Care Program.
After the Senate’s action late Wednesday, Pai congratulated Starks on his appointment:
“He brings a wealth of experience and expertise, including having served most recently as Assistant Chief in the Enforcement Bureau. During his confirmation hearing, I was excited to hear him highlight the need to expand rural broadband and the power of telemedicine. I look forward to working with him and having a fellow Kansan on the Commission.”
He also congratulated Carr, a fellow Republican, on his work at the FCC on wireless infrastructure modernization, precision agriculture and advancements in telemedicine.
Industry groups weighed in with praise. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association, said of Carr and Starks: “Both have deep experience in telecom policy issues that can help tackle thorny challenges and identify innovative, practical solutions as we strive for a more connected nation.
“Commissioner Carr has already demonstrated in his time on the FCC his willingness to roll up his sleeves and examine issues thoroughly through field visits and conversations with stakeholders of all kinds. Meanwhile, Commissioner Starks’ long-standing commitment to public service and his family’s own connections to rural America and telemedicine applications will suit him well in his new role. NTCA and its membership look forward to working with Commissioners Carr and Starks, as well as the other members of the FCC, to advance the statutory mission of universal service, protect consumers, and promote competitive markets and common-sense rules of the road wherever possible.”
The Internet Industry Association stated: “At a time when the nation is beginning the transition to much faster and more versatile 5G networks, we look forward to working with them on critical policies to accelerate broadband deployments and meet the country’s broadband needs.”
Sen. Jon Kyl Refuses to Commit to Continuing to Serve Beyond Next Year
WASHINGTON, December 10, 2018 – In a brief interview with Beltway Breakfast, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, refused to commit to serving past January 3, 2019.
“January 3 would be an obvious time frame” for a switch in service, Kyl said before an appearance at the Federalist Society here.
“But,” he hedged, “I have to have a conversation with the governor” of Arizona.
Kyl, a former senator, returned to Washington following the death on August 25, 2018, of Sen. John McCain, the state’s senior senator. Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey tapped Kyl to go back to the Senate to fulfill the remainder of McCain’s term, which lasts until the end of 2022.
In order to make to the end of the term at the end of 2022, however, that senator must face the voters for re-election in 2020 — and Kyl has said that he has no interest in doing that.
During the Federalist Society event, Kyl said that Gov. Ducey should pick another person who “might have an interest in running again.”
Kyl said he had committed only to “seeing it through at least until the end of this Congress.”
The timing of Kyl’s length of service is sensitive because if Kyl does not commit to continuing to serve — and if Ducey fails to pick a new replacement by January 3, 2019 — then Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, would become the state’s “senior senator.”
In the space of a few months, Arizona has gone from having two relatively-long serving Republican senators – McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake — to conceivably having two relatively fresh faces: Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and a replacement that would be named Gov Ducey, should Kyl not continue to serve.
During the discussion at the Federal Society event, Kyl discussed his role as the guide to help Brent Kavanaugh through the confirmation process to be a justice on the Supreme Court.
“I helped to shepherd Kavanaugh” through the relatively painless process that occurred prior to the time that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault by a 17-year-old Kavanaugh became public.
Kyl was appointed to McCain’s seat on September 5, 2018, one week before Dr. Ford’s allegation became public. Then, as senator, Kyl said, “It was like parachuting into the middle of a war zone. The police literally had to clear the hallways of the office building.
“It was a particularly raucous environment, and that was not particularly enjoyable,” said Kyl.
Asked by Beltway Breakfast whether he was enjoying his second tour of service in the Senate, Kyl said, “Enjoy is not the right word, but it is good to be back.”