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Analysis: Trump's hardball tactics backfire as 'skinny repeal' goes down

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's decisive 'no' vote followed a threat by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

WASHINGTON – President Trump's attacks on Republican senators are finally catching up with him, and Lisa Murkowski will not be bullied.

A last-ditch effort to keep the Obamacare repeal effort alive went down by a vote of 49 to 51 in the wee hours of Friday morning, with three GOP members breaking ranks: John McCain, Susan Collins and Murkowski.

Mitch McConnell then pulled the legislation from consideration. "It is time to move on," a dejected majority leader said.

There is nothing Trump can do any more that will get to McCain. Battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, the maverick was willing to vote "no" on the "skinny repeal" amendment so that other GOP colleagues who were also opposed to the measure could vote "yes" to save face with the conservative base.

To this day, Trump has never apologized for saying that the former fighter pilot was not a war hero because he got captured in Vietnam. It gets less attention, but the president also besmirched the Arizona senator's character by repeatedly accusing him of not taking care of other veterans. McCain has never forgotten.

Trump, who won Alaska by 15 points, ripped the state's senior senator on Twitter Wednesday after she opposed a key procedural motion to open debate on health care:

Later that day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Murkowski and the state's other Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, to threaten that the Trump administration may change its position on several issues that affect the state to punish Murkowski, including blocking energy exploration and plans to allow the construction of new roads. "The message was pretty clear," Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News.

Nevertheless, Murkowski persisted. In fact, she took it one step farther and demonstrated that she has more leverage over Zinke than he has over her. As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski indefinitely postponed a nominations markup that the Interior Department badly wants.

This demonstrated the degree to which Zinke's ham-handed phone call was political malpractice. The secretary, or whoever at the White House ordered him to make the calls, clearly doesn't understand the awesome power that comes with being the chairman of a Senate committee. Only an amateur would threaten the person who has oversight over his agency! If she wants, Murkowski can make Zinke's life so unbelievably miserable. He has no idea. (The Interior Department did not respond to requests for comment.)

A Murkowski spokeswoman denied that putting off the hearing was revenge or retaliation. Even if you believe that, and color us skeptical, postponing the hearing sent a crystal-clear message to the administration that she is not to be messed with. "I base my votes on what I believe is in Alaska's best interest," Murkowski told reporters, with a smile.

Senators serve six-year terms, so they're more insulated from pressure than representatives who are up every two years. Murkowski, who easily won a fourth term last year, is not up again until 2022, when Trump may no longer be president.

On the Hill, this week has felt like it might be a turning point of sorts. "Republican lawmakers have openly defied President Trump in meaningful ways this week amid growing frustration on Capitol Hill with his surprise tweets, erratic behavior and willingness to trample on governing norms," the Washington Post's Mike DeBonis reports. "They passed legislation to stop him from lifting sanctions on Russia. They recoiled at his snap decision to ban transgender Americans from the military. And they warned him in no uncertain terms not to fire the attorney general or the special counsel investigating the president and his aides."

The Senate voted 98 to 2 Thursday to pass a bill increasing sanctions against Russia, despite a veto threat. Only Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul opposed it. White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci said Thursday morning that Trump "may veto the sanctions" so that he can "negotiate" with Russia, and incoming White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later in the day that the president is still reviewing the final legislation.

Many leading conservatives said publicly they are prepared to override Trump. "No president likes Congress to tie their hands," Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said. "This is a very unique and particular case at a key moment. . . . If the president vetoes it, as is his right, there will be a debate, but I believe it will be overridden."

There's also been escalating backlash from Senate Republicans to Trump's treatment of Jeff Sessions. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) said he would not hold any hearings on a replacement if Trump dismissed the attorney general.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) announced plans Thursday to introduce legislation that would prevent Trump from being able to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. "Some of the suggestions that the president is making go way beyond what's acceptable in a rule-of-law nation," Graham said. "This is not draining the swamp. What he's interjecting is turning democracy upside down."

"If you're thinking of making a recess appointment to push out the attorney general, forget about it," added Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), also a member of the Judiciary Committee. "The presidency isn't a bull, and this country isn't a china shop."

"For the most part, Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to avert their gaze whenever the president's tweets or actions spark controversy. So there has been nothing like this so far in Trump's presidency," the Washington Post's Dan Balz explains. "Whether that's because it involves a former member of the Capitol Hill club or because of the potential implications for a constitutional crisis if the president tries to scuttle the Mueller investigation, the response to this has been different."