It was half past noon Monday when Chuck Grassley, the genial chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked for a show of hands: Did senators debating the Neil Gorsuch nomination to the Supreme Court want to break for lunch?
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., interjected with a parliamentary inquiry: “Could the majority cater this lunch?”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spoke in the affirmative: “I vote for plowing right through, Mr. Chairman.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., gave the proposition bipartisan support.
The Republican chairman was flummoxed. “Actually the people who wanted to adjourn for half an hour had the most votes,” he reported. The committee dissolved into confusion and side conversations.
Observed Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel: “We can’t even agree on lunch.”
These are indeed grim times for the committee – which approved Gorsuch’s nomination on a party-line vote Monday – and for the Senate, for Washington and for America. This week, the problems are going to get noticeably worse.
The government has in many ways ceased to function, because of a cycle of partisan rancor and retaliation culminating in the ascent of President Donald Trump.
Now Democrats, justifiably furious that Republicans essentially stole a Supreme Court seat by refusing for nearly a year to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, are threatening to block Trump’s nominee. And Republicans are threatening to respond with worse – abolishing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees (and before long, most likely everything else).
That “nuclear option” would destroy what’s left of the Senate as a deliberative body, eliminating a staple of American democracy that has existed in some form since 1789 to forge consensus.
“The damage done to the Senate is going to be real,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told his colleagues Monday, saying it would undermine “the traditions that have been in existence for 200 years.” Judges are going to be more ideological, presidents will be able to appoint justices only when their party controls the Senate, and every Senate election will be a “referendum” on the court, he said.
Graham, a frequent Trump critic and the rare Republican who voted for both of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, found culpability on both sides. “We can all look in a mirror, find some blame,” he said – and he’s right. Though Republicans’ conversion into a far-right, anti-government party is responsible for most current dysfunction, the Democrats opened the door to ending the filibuster, changing the chamber’s rules in 2013 to abolish filibusters for lower court appointments.
I wrote at the time that Democrats eventually would “deeply regret what they have done.” True, GOP obstruction had been intolerable: Half of the filibusters of executive and judicial nominations in the nation’s history up to that point had occurred during Obama’s presidency. But, predictably, chipping away at the filibuster – an institution that has existed in some form since the founding – now haunts Democrats.
Worse, there seems to be no solution, no talk of a compromise that might, say, let Gorsuch through with a majority vote but restore the 60-vote threshold if Trump gets the chance to replace a liberal justice. During four hours of statements before Monday’s vote, the bickering judiciary-panel members generally agreed on only one thing: They are about to do something very bad.
“I wish,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, an anti-Trump Republican, “that we would instead change the behavior of senators rather than change the rules of the Senate.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noting that his 42 years in the chamber made him dean of the Senate, lamented that “I cannot vote solely to protect an institution,” because “the Senate I would be defending no longer exists.”
And Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., offered an emotional appeal to all combatants. “The reality we are in requires us ... to consider what both Republicans and Democrats have done to erode the trust that has long lasted between us and consider whether we can stop the undeniable momentum toward abolishing the traditions that make the Senate unique and important.”
But can they?
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the body and a 20-year veteran, didn’t sound hopeful.
“It breaks my heart to find us in this position,” he said, recalling “what it used to be like” and “the pride we took” in the Senate. “Senate traditions will change this week. In honesty they started changing a long time ago. I hope, I just hope, at the end of the day we can resurrect what this institution was all about.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.