Utah lawmakers are asking their colleagues to send a message of support to President Donald Trump by censuring Sen. Mitt Romney over his impeachment vote and issuing a formal statement “paying tribute” to the nation’s chief executive.
State officials wasted no time Thursday in distancing themselves from Romney, R-Utah, who joined Senate Democrats on Wednesday in voting to convict Trump for abuse of power and remove the president from office. He was the only Republican to break ranks with his party during the impeachment process.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, early Thursday announced that he had filed a resolution to censure Romney, saying the senator’s judgment was questionable even if his motives were pure. While the censure seemed to be a nonstarter with Senate leadership, a more conciliatory resolution surfaced later in the day. After a “tense” meeting with Romney, House Speaker Brad Wilson revealed that he and Senate President Stuart Adams are jointly filing a resolution offering tribute to Trump for supporting Utah.
Lyman told reporters he believes that Romney obeyed his conscience in voting to convict the president and respects a politician who’s willing to “go against the grain.” Even so, Romney’s “attacks” on the president, including his support for calling witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial, have been harmful to the Republican Party and the country, Lyman argued.
“We’re not censuring him for voting his conscience. We’re censuring him for the positions that he’s taken through this whole process,” Lyman said. “And to send a message that we want to have good relationships with the White House, we want to have good relationships with President Trump.”
Lyman praised Trump as a leader who has Utah’s back and highlighted the president’s decision to rescind portions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments shortly after his election in 2016.
“That was an action that spoke loudly to me and to people I care about," said Lyman, who was among the most vocal critics of the Bears Ears National Monument designation of former President Barack Obama.
The text of Lyman’s resolution has not yet been publicly released. The lawmaker said he opened the bill file for his censure resolution in late January but held off on making it public until he knew which way Romney would vote.
A senatorial visit
Romney’s spokeswoman said he visited Thursday morning with House and Senate leaders for about 90 minutes at the state Capitol. Lyman said he’d interacted with Romney briefly during a meeting between a handful of House members and the senator; while it was a conversation with “a lot of disagreement,” he said, there was no animosity.
Liz Johnson, Romney’s spokeswoman, said the senator visited state lawmakers for the opportunity “to talk about his decision and sit down with them and kind of hear from them.” She declined to comment on Lyman’s resolution.
Wilson, R-Kaysville, told caucus members that Romney faced “some pretty tough questions” from lawmakers during their morning meeting together.
“Many of us here are disappointed in what happened yesterday and disagree, at least to some degree, with the decision that was made,” the House speaker told reporters. “But we appreciate him coming out and explaining his decision.”
Wilson said the Trump administration has been a tremendous ally of Utah, through its support of states’ rights, regulatory reform, tax cuts and by responding to “abuses” that Utah has experienced related to public lands management.
He said he did not expect any retribution against the state as a result of Romney’s actions.
“We’ve got a great relationship with the White House,” he said.
But speaking in the House GOP caucus, Wilson outlined the challenge of remaining “tethered closely” with both Congress and the White House despite the discord between the two.
Wilson declined to state whether he supports censuring Romney over his vote in the impeachment trial. He said Republicans in the state Legislature would be meeting as a caucus to discuss their options and suggested it could be a week, or more, before any vote on censure is taken.
“My instincts tell me," he said, “that there’s a lot of people right now that are a little unhappy with the senator.”
Jeff Merchant, who chairs the Utah Democratic Party, criticized lawmakers who want to censure Romney for “overstepping their bounds.”
“The people have elected Mitt Romney, and Mitt Romney did what he thought was the right thing to do,” Merchant said. “And that’s something that every one of these legislators also think that they’re doing. So I think the least that they can do is respect the views of an elected official in the state.”
Romney has slipped in the polls in recent months, according to Morning Consult polling. A majority of Utah Republicans still back Romney — 57% in the last four months of 2019 — but that’s down from 65% the prior quarter.
Morning Consult, which conducts polls nationwide, surveyed Utah voters at a time when Romney was raising concern about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the state’s junior senator said he was aware of the backlash he would face for voting against Trump but was compelled by greater considerations.
“No question the consequence will be enormous,” Romney said. “The consequence of violating my conscience and my oath of office to God would be even greater.”
In a phone call with reporters, he specifically addressed the prospect that state lawmakers might act against him.
“I don’t know what might happen in the Utah Legislature, and I will accept whatever consequence is sent my way and recognize that’s part of the job,” he said. “People don’t expect me to be a shrinking violet, and they certainly don’t expect me to abandon my oath.”
Aside from the resolutions that are in play, Utah lawmakers are also considering legislation this year that would create a process for recalling a U.S. senator.
The sponsor of that legislation, Heber Republican Rep. Tim Quinn, says his HB217 is not meant to target Romney. But the proposal has generated significant interest on Capitol Hill in the days leading up to and following the U.S. Senate vote on impeachment.
The idea for the bill came from a town hall meeting where someone spoke in favor of repealing the Constitution’s 17th Amendment, which took the selection of U.S. senators out of the hands of state legislators, Quinn said. That sort of change will never happen, Quinn said, but he does believe senators should be answerable to their constituents.
“Six years is a long time to serve without having to be accountable back to the people who put you in,” Quinn said.
Utah Senate leaders were skeptical of both the recall and the censure legislation on Thursday, saying a rebuke of Romney would exacerbate political divisions and that Quinn’s bill to recall U.S. senators is unconstitutional. Quinn acknowledged the probability of a lawsuit against his bill if it passes but said his job is to legislate and not to worry about what the courts will do in response.
During Thursday’s meeting with Romney, Quinn said he conveyed respect for the senator’s decision to vote his conscience.
“I did the same thing on taxes,” the lawmaker said, referring to his vote against a December tax reform bill supported by the majority of his caucus. “But I told him I thought he was wrong. Based on all the evidence that we’ve seen and that 250 other Republicans saw, I think he was wrong.”
Asked whether he’d support an effort to recall Romney, Quinn refused to speculate but said he wouldn’t punish the senator simply for doing what he felt was right. Lyman, on the other hand, said the potential recall provision, which he’s co-sponsoring, could be a “nice threat” to wield against Romney if the senator remains at odds with the Republican Party.
In the wake of the impeachment trial, House lawmakers’ feelings toward Romney have run the gamut from anger to understanding, Wilson told his caucus Thursday. Some haven’t quite figured out what to make of it all, he said.
State Rep. Kim Coleman has landed squarely in the outraged camp, calling Romney’s vote an “attack” on Trump and the voters who put the president in office.
“To see a U.S. senator who claims to represent Utah take part in that effort is heartbreaking,” the West Jordan Republican wrote in a lengthy blog post, which also took aim at Rep. Ben McAdams, the Democrat she’s running to unseat in the 4th Congressional District.
Adams, R-Layton, was an early supporter of Trump, and sits on the Utah committee of the president’s reelection campaign. He said he supports Trump fully, and thinks “most Utahns do,” but that balancing the state’s budget and addressing other local concerns should take precedence for Utah lawmakers.
“If we get distracted and get involved in some of these issues,” he said, “it takes away from what we’re trying to do this session.”
Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said it’s important to support the president and the good things he has done for the state. But he added that opinions vary, and that individual Utahns can reasonably disagree on whether Romney was right to vote as he did.
“I, for one, wouldn’t want to be judged, to be censured," Ipson said, “for one vote that I made.”