Has the Senate finally hit rock bottom?
Last fall’s brutal confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation led to such bad blood that even old friends weren’t talking.
Then came an ugly, 35-day government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history.
Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) triggered the “nuclear option” and weakened the Senate’s vaunted filibuster to steamroll over Democratic resistance to President Donald Trump’s nominees — the third time in six years the majority party has unilaterally changed Senate rules.
To top it all off, the Senate has now failed to muster enough votes to pass a simple disaster-aid bill, something that was once routine and is a failure that will affect millions of Americans.
McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, exchanged verbal blows on Thursday as they gave dueling accounts over who was to blame for the Senate morass.
Schumer first accused McConnell of overseeing a “legislative graveyard,” adding that McConnell’s Senate deserved an “F.”
McConnell responded hours later that Schumer was the father of gridlock, having blocked George W. Bush‘s judicial picks more than a decade ago.
“I know exactly who started it,” McConnell said.
Then Congress promptly left town for a two-week recess, frustrating members in both parties, who lamented the state of the Senate and said they hoped the situation couldn’t get worse. But it just might, senators from both parties admitted.
“The fact that we’ve had political vote after political vote after political vote while there’s issues like climate change and comprehensive immigration [reform] that we don’t take up — yeah,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) when asked if the Senate had bottomed out. “We’re an awful lot like the House now. It’s no longer ‘The Greatest Deliberative Body.’ It’s just another body.”
“We’re seeing what can happen if we don’t fix some things that we got to fix, but I don’t think we hit rock bottom by any stretch,” added Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “Unfortunately, you could go a lot further than we’re going right now.
Some thought the 2016 retirement of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada would improve the state of the Senate, and in a certain sense, it has. The personal relationship between McConnell and Schumer has not been anywhere near as toxic as it was with Reid and McConnell.
“They’re a couple of old pros. They don’t take it personally,” insisted Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) of the two current leaders.
Yet functionally, the McConnell-Schumer dynamic isn’t really much different. Each party has grown more ideologically rigid as the moderate core of the Senate has either been ousted or retired. And Trump’s unpredictable nature makes legislating immeasurably harder.
As Republicans changed the Senate rules last week, McConnell and Schumer engaged in a fierce tit-for-tat on the floor culminating with McConnell literally pointing at Schumer as the one to blame.
It was an ugly moment for the Senate. Yet these types of bitter personal exchanges have become routine, and a growing number of senators just try to tune it all out.
“I was working, man… I was working on policy,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) when asked about the McConnell-Schumer exchange.
McConnell’s own drive to remake the judiciary with conservative nominees, and his decision to block Merrick Garland’s ascension to the Supreme Court in 2016, infuriates Democrats to no end. Spend more than 30 seconds talking to any Senate Democrat, and Garland’s name is pulled out. It’s the wound that never heals.
“’Nuclear Mitch’ has pulled the trigger twice and there are many people who think he’s ready to do it again,” said Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who summed up the leaders’ relationship as “Not good, not good.”
“Merrick Garland and [McConnell’s] nuclear changes are changing the Senate. Its’ a shame for a man who prides himself with a long personal history of the Senate,” Durbin said of McConnell.
Schumer, for his part, is under enormous pressure from the liberal grassroots — as well as a half-dozen Senate Democrats running for president — to resist Trump at every turn. The days of Schumer waving through lower-level judicial nominees without dissent are over, and it seems to do no harm to Schumer. The Democratic leader has a poor relationship with Trump, who refers to him as “Cryin’ Chuck,” so there’s little for him to lose.
On Thursday, Schumer — who only last fall said he may bring back the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees if Democrats take back the majority next year — seemed open to the idea of eliminating or scaling back the legislative filibuster.
“Our focus should be on winning the majority. We’ll have a nice caucus of more than 50 Democrats, and we will decide what to do,” Schumer told reporters. “You can think about a whole lot of things. I’ve taken no position on any of this.”
Such talk from a party leader would have been blasphemy in the old Senate, yet it’s pro forma these days.
All of which has led some senators to consider whether it’s time to ship out.
“It’s not what I expected. It’s not what I thought, what I heard, what I read about,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is thinking about running for governor even though he won another six-year Senate term just last fall.
“I’m getting to the end of my career,” Manchin added. “Do I want to end my career where I can be most effective? I’m looking at that, to be honest with you.”
Some members insist the Senate can be saved, and that serious legislating can still be done.
Retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said McConnell has assured him that if he’s able to make a bipartisan breakthrough on higher education or reducing health costs, the GOP leader would bring it to the floor. McConnell also said Thursday he’d be willing to entertain infrastructure or immigration proposals that have bedeviled past Congresses.
But senators want to do more than just talk about what they might do. They want to get moving.
“I sure hope not,” Alexander said when asked if the Senate might primarily focus on nominations during his last two years in the chamber. “We’ve got a whole lot more to do than that.”
Schumer also told reporters that he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will meet with Trump on infrastructure in "the next several weeks," but warned that "if they’re not going to put real money and have real labor and environmental protections, we’re not going to get anywhere."
The coming release of the Mueller report will dominate the near term on Capitol Hill, but there is some legislative business that can’t be avoided.
Congress has to pass some funding measure to avoid another shutdown by the end of September, something both sides say they want to do. The U.S. government also will hit the debt limit around the same time, and Congress will have to authorize trillions in new borrowing or potentially spark a global financial crisis.
And the two Senate leaders, along with Trump, Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), will have to work out a deal this fall to raise budget caps or face draconian cuts to domestic and defense programs. McConnell described such an agreement as “the most important example how in divided government you need to step up.”
The budget negotiations may provide the best litmus test on whether the Senate is truly broken.
“Your test is going to be ‘do we get to a good budget deal,’” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).” If we flounder on the budget deal, then come back and ask me if we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine