OPINION — Of all of the questions left unanswered after the Judiciary Committee hearings for Brett Kavanaugh ended last week, the hardest one to know for sure might also be the most important for the long-term health of the country — can the Senate be saved after everything that happened last week?
Can the Senate function again after Sen. Lindsey Graham looked across the hearing room at his Democratic colleagues on Thursday and yelled in rage, “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it!”
Can the Senate function again after those same Democrats used the first hour of Kavanaugh’s previous hearing to try to shut the process down before it began, before the Supreme Court nominee ever answered a single question, and before the sexual assault accusations against him were publicly known?
It’s hard to see the old Senate virtues of comity and cooperation ever playing much of a role in the future after Sen. Tom Cotton randomly hate-tweeted Democratic senators during the hearings and garnered zero reaction from his colleagues. “.@SenFeinstein has lost all control of her committee staff & members,” one tweet read.
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“.@SenBlumenthal lied for years about serving in Vietnam, which is all you need to know about his courage & honesty,” Cotton wrote of Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
As for the entire collection of Judiciary Committee Democrats, Cotton tweeted, “They’d probably be better off not going after making such fools of themselves during the first hearing.”
So much for the gentleman from Arkansas.
And where were Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s fellow senators when Kavanaugh asked her if she, the daughter of an alcoholic, had ever gotten blackout drunk after she pressed him on his own memories while drinking? Another era would have seen a chairman’s gavel come down on a witness who spoke to a senator that way. But we’re not in another era.
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Beat until broken
The depths of dysfunction were on full display Sunday night in a single comment Sen. Jeff Flake made in an interview with 60 Minutes, after the Arizona Republican struck a last-minute compromise with committee Democrats to allow a one-week FBI investigation into the accusations against Kavanaugh.
Flake stated frankly that there was “not a chance” he would have considered the deal had he not been leaving the Senate at the end of this year. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle,” Flake told Scott Pelley. “There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”
If the Senate completely breaks down after this week, the reality is that the Kavanaugh nomination won’t have been the cause of it.
It will only be the explosive end to a long-burning fuse that started for most of today’s sitting senators in 2013. That’s when Sen. Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats used the “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules and abandon the long-held Senate filibuster for President Barack Obama’s nominations. At the time, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned the Democrats, “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”
“A lot sooner than you think” came in three years later, when McConnell, back in the majority, sat on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, arguing that Obama was a lame-duck president, even though he had nearly a year left in his term.
At the time, Texas Sen. John Cornyn ominously wondered why any Democrat would want the nomination, since Senate Republicans would essentially beat them until they broke. “I think they will bear some resemblance to a piñata,” Cornyn told a group of reporters.
Glimmers of hope
But even those Senate battles pale in comparison to the 1987 nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Within one hour of President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his pick, Sen. Ted Kennedy delivered an epic take-down of the dystopia that he promised would follow in “Robert Bork’s America.” When Bork was voted down by the Senate, the damage to the nominations process in that era was done.
As ugly as the Bork nomination process was, and even after Reagan’s next nominee was forced to withdraw over previous drug use, the Senate found a way to move forward, eventually confirming Justice Anthony Kennedy to the court by a vote of 97-0.
Despite the fact that Brett Kavanaugh called his nomination process “a national disgrace,” I’d argue that the hearings were in fact a reflection of the nation itself — divided, distressed and highly partisan in the heat of the moment.
Yet the process, led by GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, also managed to give voice to sexual assault survivors on a national platform for the first time in history. And it yielded a rare compromise among senators that gave those same survivors hope that their stories matter and that they are being seen and valued, maybe for the first time in their lives.
Will changed minds be the final outcome? Maybe not. But their voices have at the very least been heard.
Outside of the Judiciary Committee last week, progress was quietly moving forward on the kinds of basic box checking that has tripped senators up in past years. They even got the government funded — open for business on Oct. 1 and in no danger of shutting down for the first time in several years.
Maybe the Senate was functioning the entire time, even when it looked broken from the outside looking in.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.