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The Senate’s Deep Wounds From an Ugly Kavanaugh Fight

Category: Political News,Politics

WASHINGTON — Brett M. Kavanaugh is now an associate justice of the Supreme Court, leaving the exhausted Senate to contend with the smoldering aftermath of his vitriolic confirmation fight, one that members of both parties worry did lasting institutional damage.

Accusations of unethical conduct. Personal attacks. Threats of new investigations into leaks. Vows of future retribution. Suggestions of bad faith. And hanging over the conflict was the Republican decision in 2016 to block President Barack Obama’s nominee to a Supreme Court vacancy that occurred 11 months before the end of his tenure.

“It has not been good for the Senate, none of this,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama, who has been a member of the chamber for more than three decades. “Too much estrangement on both sides. We in the Senate have to understand that we have differences. It shouldn’t be personal.”

Confirmation fights tend to bring out the worst in the Senate, given both parties’ intense focus on the courts as they play an ever-greater role in sorting out legislative and societal disputes. But the institution has been struggling for years with a rise in polarization and partisanship, leading to decisions by both parties to try to break the gridlock by essentially forcing through rules changes on nominations.

“I have seen this institution change so dramatically in the 20 years I have been here,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. “Fundamentals, debate on the floor. That used to be the hallmark of this institution, but now it is virtually unheard-of to have a controversial amendment. Both sides are to blame. People are just afraid to debate and vote on a controversial amendment.”

The Kavanaugh fight entered new territory from the beginning. Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, announced his opposition before even knowing the identity of the nominee, citing President Trump’s promise to make the pick off a list compiled with the help of conservative advocacy groups.

Many other Democrats came out against Justice Kavanaugh, a former Republican political operative, well before his hearing. Then, the very moment the confirmation hearing convened, Democrats raised heated objections to express their anger at the partisan decision-making about what documents were disclosed from Justice Kavanaugh’s White House years.

Republicans accused Democrats of fomenting “mob rule” by egging on protesters, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, repeatedly blamed Democrats for setting off a “mudslide” of personal smears against Justice Kavanaugh.

Republicans also accused Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, of sandbagging them and Justice Kavanaugh by sitting on a letter from Christine Blasey Ford accusing him of sexual assault and then leaking it at the last minute as confirmation was in sight.

Democrats saw that as an outrageous attack on the integrity of one of the Senate’s senior members — one with a history of working with Republicans — and even Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who sealed Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, rose to Ms. Feinstein’s defense in her floor speech.

Still, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, has indicated he wants a deeper investigation into how the letter became public, an inquiry likely to prolong the bitter fight. During the hearings, Mr. Graham also noted that he could become chairman of the Judiciary Committee next year, and that he didn’t intend to tolerate what he considered unfair Democratic tactics.

On Sunday, he indicated on Fox News that he would campaign against some of his Democratic colleagues, a step senators are often reluctant to take since they may have to later work together.

Clearly, emotions were rubbed raw by the Kavanaugh struggle. “Some of the relationships that have been built over the aisle have been bent if not broken,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Republican leadership.

The once illustrious Judiciary Committee may have suffered the most damage. Even before the Supreme Court hearing, tensions were running high because Republicans had changed longstanding practices giving home-state senators influence in the selection of federal judges regardless of party. Procedural clashes during the Kavanaugh hearings only exacerbated those deep divisions.

After the confirmation was sealed on Saturday afternoon, Mr. McConnell sought to play down the idea of lasting damage from the process he oversaw. He said he didn’t think the experience came anywhere close to some previous national nadirs, mentioning the McCarthy communist witch hunt and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

“This is nowhere as challenging as some of the experiences we have had in the past throughout our history,” he said. “The Senate and the country will get past this. We always do.”

He also noted that the Senate had just finished up its most successful handling of the annual spending bills in two decades on a firmly bipartisan basis, and also passed a bipartisan measure to combat opioid abuse, though the legislation got little attention in the middle of the court showdown.

“We were both able to have a big, robust fight both sides felt deeply about and still work together on other issues at the very same time,” he said. “These things always blow over.”

Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, suggested one way for the Senate to heal: to find more issues on which to work cooperatively. “We have been through hard things before,” he said. “The way you recover is by finding other things to work on together.”

Democrats have also increasingly said they would like to see the Senate reinstate the 60-vote threshold to break filibusters against judicial nominees — one eliminated by the Democrats on lower-court judges and the Republicans on the Supreme Court — as a way to force more consensus on nominees. But that appears very unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.

Instead, the Kavanaugh nomination will now join the Supreme Court fights over the nominations of Robert H. Bork, Clarence Thomas and Merrick B. Garland as flash points in Senate history, ones that left deep wounds and bitterness that persist.


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