Hostility grows with each nomination
Traditions get broken, partisan lines get deeper in toxic atmosphere
Republicans powered Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh through the Senate last weekend, but not before lawmakers said they had hit “rock bottom” with the poisonous atmosphere pervading the Capitol, leaving all sides fearful about what happens the next time they are asked to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.
Republican leaders said they hoped the 50-48 vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh would be a cleansing moment, sending a signal that the nastiness of the past few months wasn’t a successful strategy for Democrats trying to sink a nominee whose legal credentials were stellar.
“A vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh today is a vote to end this brief, dark chapter in the Senate’s history and turn the page toward a brighter tomorrow,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. McConnell managed to shepherd Justice Kavanaugh through the Senate with the slimmest of majorities in a hostile media environment and with an election looming in a month.
Hours after the vote, President Trump signed Justice Kavanaugh’s commission and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administered the oath of office, putting the court back at its full contingent of nine justices. But the scars of the battle remain. Democrats complained that Republicans broke traditions on access to documents — millions of pages of records from Justice Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House went unexamined — and on the nature of background checks. They also were disappointed that the FBI failed to corroborate 36-year-old accusations of sexual assault.
Democrats also said Justice Kavanaugh lowered the bar with his angry testimony last month, when he sparred with senators who accused him of lying, attempted rape, using crude language and drinking as a teenager.
Republicans complained of a massive liberal public relations machine that worked overtime to fabricate erroneous stories about the judge’s 12 years of rulings, concocted conspiracy theories about why he was nominated, and then maltreated Christine Blasey Ford, who lodged the first misconduct allegations against Justice Kavanaugh privately, only to see them leaked.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat with more than two decades in the Senate, said both sides were to blame, with Republicans escalating matters. But he also said there is no going back. “Without some major change in the power of the majority, I hope there is no illusion among my colleagues that we have endured over the last few weeks, if anything, the beginning of what is to come,” he said.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who as a member of the Judiciary Committee had an up-close look at the past month’s circus, cautioned Republicans not to stoop to the same tactics the next time a Democratic president gets the chance to make a nomination.
“If Republicans ever decide to emulate the Democrats’ ‘search and destroy’ playbook, they can count me out. Doing so would stoop Congress to a level we should never see again,” he said.
On that count, he is battling history, which has proved that each new low set by one party is quickly embraced by the other.
Republicans said they were following the lead of former Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Delaware Democrat, when they refused to consider President Obama’s 2016 nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, holding the seat open for the next president to fill.
When Democrats pioneered the partisan filibuster of judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, Republicans did the same for Mr. Obama.
In 2013, Democrats triggered the “nuclear option” changing the interpretation of the rules to defang the filibuster for most judicial nominees. Republicans followed last year and expanded the nuclear option for use on Supreme Court picks.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, was asked last week whether he would try to reverse that change and restore the filibuster’s power for Supreme Court nominees if Democrats take control of the chamber. He was noncommittal.
“The bottom line is that the Republican leader moved it down to . The bottom line is we’ll have to look at that should we get back into the majority,” he said.
Still, Mr. McConnell was optimistic that the Senate can recover.
Even during the Kavanaugh fight, he said, the Senate wrote and approved two massive spending bills, cleared an antiopioid package and made headway on other bipartisan priorities.
Those sorts of accomplishments rely on the relationships senators build up over decades, and there was evidence, even amid the strife, that the relationships remain strong.
Minutes after Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, attacked Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, for his handling of the Kavanaugh nomination, Mr. Durbin crossed the aisle to exchange handshakes and a few chuckles with Mr. Grassley.
Retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy administered the Judicial Oath to the man who is taking his seat, Brett M. Kavanaugh, at the Supreme Court. Ashley Kavanaugh held the Bible as daughters Margaret (background) and Liza looked on.
Protesters rallied at the Supreme Court after the Senate voted to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh.