On Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) became the first Republican senator to call for President Donald Trump’s removal from office over his role in fomenting a violent insurrection, implying that she could leave the party if it continued to align itself with the president.
“I want him out. He has caused enough damage,” Murkowski said in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News’s James Brooks. “But I will tell you, if the Republican Party has become nothing more than the party of Trump, I sincerely question whether this is the party for me.”
Murkowski’s comments seemingly opened up a possibility for Democrats to tilt what is set to be a 50-50 split in the Senate chamber to a one-seat advantage. However, Murkowski tamped down that idea in comments to Alaska Public Media reporter Liz Ruskin, later on Friday, when Ruskin asked if she would consider joining the emerging Democratic majority. “No. No. Absolutely, unequivocally not,” she told Ruskin.
Lotta speculation about @lisamurkowski going Democrat.— Liz Ruskin-AK public radio reporter (@lruskin) January 9, 2021
I asked: Are you considering joining the Democratic majority?
Murkowski: "No. No. Absolutely, unequivocally not."
The balance of power in the Senate will be split once the two new Democratic senators from Georgia — Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both of whom won runoff elections last Tuesday — are sworn in when their election results are certified on January 15. In a split Senate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats control of the chamber.
Murkowski flipping parties would have potentially given Democrats a 51-49 majority, removing the need for Harris’s tie-breaker.
While some Republicans, like Sen. Ben Sasse, have offered more measured criticisms of Trump — and some have even joined calls for his removal — many have shown they are sticking with him. Following the storming of the US Capitol Wednesday, 147 Republican lawmakers voted in support of Trump’s lie that there were irregularities that put the 2020 presidential election’s results in doubt. And after Twitter permanently banned Trump Friday, many of his most ardent GOP defenders, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, were quick to stand with him.
And it seems unlikely that Trump will be leaving office before Inauguration Day on January 20. Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly chosen not to remove him using the 25th Amendment, and Trump has not signaled any plans to resign. The House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, plans to begin impeachment proceedings as early as Monday. But a memo circulated to Republican senators Friday laid out a delayed timeline for a potential trial House passes articles of impeachment for the second time.
NEWS —> McConnell sends memo to GOP senators outlining how an impeachment trial would work if the House goes thru. In essence, McConnell explains how an impeachment trial would consume the first days of Biden’s presidency. Memo exclusively obtained by WaPo https://t.co/q2f2Quum1Z pic.twitter.com/SAkVVsqPvb— Seung Min Kim (@seungminkim) January 9, 2021
In the memo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated that the Senate trial could begin as late as January 21, when Trump is no longer president. It could proceed regardless, but even though Democrats will control the chamber at that point, it seems unlikely to succeed — 67 votes are needed to convict, and it’s unclear whether enough Republicans would be willing to vote against Trump.
In the event that the GOP fails to distance itself from Trump — either during these proceedings or following them — it may lose one of its most moderate members, at least in name.
Given her response to Ruskin, the Alaska senator would most likely become an independent. But independent senators still typically choose to caucus with one of the two major parties, in part in order to be considered for committee assignments. For example, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is an independent but caucuses with Democrats, as does Maine’s Angus King, meaning both count towards the new Democratic majority and also receive Senate committee assignments by Democratic leadership.
The specific wording of Ruskin’s question is important for understanding Murkowski’s intention. The reporter asked whether the senator would join the Democratic majority, which she could do as an independent, not whether she would join the Democratic Party.
Murkowski’s response indicates that though she would call herself an independent, she would likely still caucus with Republicans in order to maintain her positions on Senate committees. She’s currently the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a powerful assignment for a senator from a state dominated by oil and natural resources. Going independent without caucusing with either party would likely see her lose that assignment.
But regardless of whether she leaves the GOP, Murkowski will remain a key target for courting by both parties on key issues like health care and abortion.
Murkowski has long established herself as a moderate voice, generally unconstrained by Republican leadership. In 2010, after losing the Republican primary for her own seat, she famously launched a successful write-in campaign. Her victory demonstrated that she didn’t need the Republican establishment to win her seat, giving her some freedom to operate independently on several key issues, such as the Affordable Care Act repeal in 2017 and her 2018 refusal to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.