Kavanaugh fight caused bitterness, but senators say they'll be friends again — one day
WASHINGTON — An exhausted and bitter Senate confirmed Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court Saturday after a months-long bruising battle that caused deep divisions between the two parties. But senators were hopeful they would repair the damage — eventually.
“It’ll take a while. This was very hurtful for a number of us and perhaps for some of them,” Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware told USA TODAY. But is it possible to recover? “Oh, yes we’ve been through worse.”
Kavanaugh, a conservative, was nominated to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been the court’s swing vote. With much at stake – Kavanaugh would give the court a 5-4 conservative majority –partisanship rhetoric was in full force. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania announced his opposition before President Donald Trump even named Kavanaugh as his pick.
The nomination process dissolved into angry exchanges and nasty attacks over how each party handled allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, which the judge adamantly denied.
“This hasn’t been our finest hour,’’ South Dakota Sen. John Thune, chair of the Republican conference, said of the Senate.
Speaking on the Senate floor to announce she would vote for Kavanaugh, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the Supreme Court confirmation process had been in decline for more than 30 years. “One can only hope that the Kavanaugh nomination is where the process has finally hit rock bottom,” she said.
In the week leading up to Saturday's confirmation vote, Republican senators floated the idea of a congressional investigation into how their Democratic colleagues handled the allegations against Kavanaugh. Democrats accused Republicans of ignoring victims of assault and hampering the FBI’s ability to investigate the claims.
“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and win in 2020,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has worked closely with Democrats, fumed during an explosive Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week when both Kavanaugh and his accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified.
“Boy you all want power, I hope you never get it … God I hate to say it because these have been my friends, but let me tell you when it comes to this you’re looking for a fair process? You came to the wrong town,” he said.
Kavanaugh was confirmed Saturday mostly along party-lines with 49 Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, saying they supported his nomination.
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But even with senators complaining about colleagues across the aisle and the bitter partisanship plaguing the body, more than a half-dozen lawmakers USA TODAY spoke to believed the rifts could eventually be mended. There were small signs of civility Friday during the procedural vote to advance Kavanaugh's nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday he doesn't believe there has been a breakdown of trust and that the "tactics" used during the confirmation process weren't "outrageous".
Instead, McConnell pointed to bi-partisan legislation passed by the Senate to combat the opioid crisis as an example of senators still being able to work together.
“We were working together right during it,” McConnell said. “We’ve done a lot on a bipartisan basis. This has been a big fight but it has not affected our ability to work together on other matters while it was going on.”
McConnell also said the criticism received by senators during the Kavanaugh confirmation process could prevent a similar kind of confirmation to happen again.
Republicans and Democrats came over to shake Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hand after she voted no, Graham was one of the first to walk over to her desk.
As the vote was underway, Collins, the Maine Republican, leaned in to talk to Murkowski and placed her right hand on Murkowski’s armrest. The two are close, but are expected to vote on opposite sides Saturday.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who brokered a deal with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation in order to allow for the FBI probe, noted that they both had different takes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation and both ended up voting differently.
“He’s still my friend,” he said. “I don’t know if anything about this week has changed minds or votes on the Senate floor, but I think it has sent an important signal to the American people that we could still hear each other even over the din of last week’s very bitter, very bitter’’ committee hearing.
“We’ve been through hard things before,'' he said. "The way you recover is by finding other things to work on together, respecting each other, confronting the things about the institution that reflect the brokenness in the country and being hopeful."
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Kavanaugh’s nomination process has “been awful” and “a low point for the Senate,” but he was also hopeful the body would be able to recover over time.
“We’ll have to,” Wicker told USA TODAY and noted that Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., read a Bible verse that “talked about bitterness” at the Senate Republican’s lunch Thursday.
“That was helpful,’’ said Wicker, adding that he thought Perdue read from the Book of James. “There has been a lot said by people on the other side of the aisle who have been friends of mine, who have worked with me on bipartisan issues that struck me as out of character and stunned me that they would say such things.”
Despite the deep divide, senators did unite to pass two historic bipartisan bills in the week leading up to the confirmation vote. The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to combat the opioid crisis and a long-awaited measure to, among other things, fund programs at the Federal Aviation Administration.
“All these things probably take a little bit of time (to heal), but in the end I think that there’s important work that needs to be done and the Senate. as we all know, it takes bipartisan cooperation to get anything done," said Thune.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., pointed to the Senate’s approval Thursday of a resolution raising awareness about suicide prevention that he worked on with Democrat Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut.
“There are things we continue to collaborate on," Cassidy said.
As if on cue, Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island chimed, “speaking of which.” He had approached Cassidy as they prepared to go into the chamber Friday to vote on a procedural measure to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination. The two had been working on ways to clamp down on money laundering methods used to fund opioid and other drugs. They voted the opposite way on Kavanaugh.
The Senate has also touted the beginning of a return to regular order by passing the most spending bills signed on time. At the time Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby from Alabama called it “a drastic turnaround in the way we have funded the government in recent years.”
When asked Friday whether the Senate can move beyond this bitter battle, Shelby, who is serving in his sixth term, said: “We always do in some form, but we’ll have to see.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said “let’s hope it does" return to normalcy. “The country needs a Senate that can be honest," Leahy is the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri told reporters Friday that “there are clearly some hard feelings here but this is not a place you get by not being fairly willing to roll with the punches.”
Blunt said he co-sponsored legislation with all but four of the current Democrats in the Senate and would continue to work across the aisle.
Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, but most legislation needs 60 votes to pass requiring bipartisanship.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., frequently criticized the handling of the Kavanaugh nomination and Friday called it a “freak show.”
“We’ve fallen short in a lot of ways,’’ he said of the Senate. “But I hope we’ve learned from this.”
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