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Former Sen. Cohen And Others Urge Current Leaders To Defend Democracy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former members of the U.S. Senate want their successors to get their act together. Forty-four ex-senators from both parties signed a letter to their colleagues. The letter warned that we are, quote, "entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law." They say the Senate must hold steady.

Now, this letter, as published in The Washington Post, is brief, a bit circumspect. So what are the ex-senators really driving at? We called one, William Cohen, who was a longtime Republican lawmaker from Maine and who's considerably more direct.

WILLIAM COHEN: The Senate, as an institution, is being turned into a body, the equivalent of the House of Representatives, where there is no room for debate; hearings are not being held open. One party is writing the bills without the other party participating. And it's really watching the slow disintegration of the institution of the Senate, in particular, but in general the institutions that are being attacked. The attack upon the Justice Department, the attack upon the special prosecutor, the attack upon the media - all these are warning signs that we may be heading down the road to tyranny or to fascism.

INSKEEP: Is your group of senators politely suggesting, without explicitly saying, the Senate needs to be ready to remove the president, should he be impeached?

COHEN: The Senate has to be prepared to do what is right under the circumstances. The fact that - if an impeachment resolution or articles of impeachment were filed and voted on by the House of Representatives, sent to the Senate, the Senate has an obligation to listen to the evidence and then to vote based upon what they learn. I think the United States Senate has an absolute role to say, we'll follow the money and the evidence to wherever it leads and hold whoever is responsible accountable.

INSKEEP: Your letter also raises concerns that there are numerous regional conflicts, national challenges the United States faces around the world. And I'd like to note that members of the Senate have spoken up. They've expressed concern. They recently even went so far as to vote to invoke the War Powers Resolution to limit the president's authority in the war in Yemen. But it's hard to find very many concrete steps they have done to limit parts of the president's foreign policy that concern them. They've mainly expressed concern.

You used to be in this Senate. You used to be a big voice on foreign policy. Is there something more that senators could do on a practical level to limit the president if they're bothered by his foreign policy?

COHEN: Well, sure, the Senate can always restrict the amount of money that is being appropriated to carry out warfare. That raises another issue in terms of whether you're compromising the safety and the security of the men and women who are out there fighting. But just starting the debate before the American people - is this a wise decision? Should we be there? And who authorized it? The president doesn't have the authority to take any military action he wants. It's the Congress of the United States that raises the money. And so the control of the purse strings has a lot of power. But this...

INSKEEP: I wonder if you're touching on the fact that the Senate really can't do much to restrain the president on foreign policy.

COHEN: Oh, I think they can. I think they can, for example, say we're no longer going to support the campaign in Yemen because the Americans aren't fighting there. Now, that's a major foreign policy decision. It has some consequences. For example, you've got Vladimir Putin sitting in the catbird seat. He would be happy to come in and fund the campaign on behalf of the Saudis.

INSKEEP: Is there a case to be made that the Senate should simply act as if everything is normal and try as best they can to do normal business?

COHEN: The answer is no. These are not normal times. There are challenges facing us of an unprecedented scale in the sheer multiplicity of the issues that we as a country and they as our representatives have to contend with. The world is very complicated, very dangerous. And it requires the United States to take a firm view of what our role in the world is going to be.

We haven't decided what role the United States should play in this century. And without any sense of real direction, everything becomes transactional. And when everything becomes transactional, there's no coherence. And if you don't have any coherence, you're unlikely to have any allies. And without allies, you're pretty much alone in a very turbulent world.

INSKEEP: William Cohen is a former secretary of defense and U.S. senator from Maine.

Thanks so much.

COHEN: OK. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.