Capitol Hill is still reverberating from its latest political earthquake
Congressional expert: 'It has very seldom been worse'
Washington has never been this bad.
It’s a refrain passed through history as successive generations bemoan the spite, division and dysfunction that defines their own political age.
But as Donald Trump’s presidency staggers to life, intense discord and fury are battering the capital.
Capitol Hill is still reverberating from its latest political earthquake – Tuesday night’s startling vote by GOP senators to shut down Democrat Elizabeth Warren and prevent her from speaking on the floor for a debate over the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. In a controversy laced with race and gender, Warren was censured by the GOP majority for reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., opposing Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship three decades ago.
The incident became an instant political firestorm in a capital still getting used to Trump’s young administration. But more fundamentally, the dispute underscored the profound – and personal – anger flowing through Washington in the aftermath of last year’s election and reflects a nation torn in half by bitter political divides.
With the Senate poisoned, the House in the grip of a zealous GOP majority and a new president who only knows one political strategy – all-out personal attack – there is every reason to think the animosity will continue to boil. Some seasoned Washington observers are starting to believe that for once, Beltway nastiness really has hit a historic nadir.
“It has very seldom been worse,” said Steven Smith, a congressional expert who wrote the 2014 book “The Senate Syndrome” about what he considers a period of rising parliamentary warfare in the chamber.
There have, of course, been dark moments in Washington’s legislative corridors, including a brutal beating of a Massachusetts senator in the Senate chamber several years before the Civil War after he delivered a blistering attack on slavery.
“But it’s hard to imagine a time when for actually year after year it has been so intensely partisan as it has been,” said Smith, a professor at Washington University, St Louis.
Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader, co-authored the book “Crisis Point” last year with former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that warned congressional polarization was making governing impossible. He cautioned against overreacting to the current turmoil while admitting the antagonism in Washington is at dispiriting levels.
“I have been in this city now approaching 50 years. I came here in 1968. When I got to Washington, there were machine guns on the steps of the Capitol,” Lott said in an interview.
During that tumultuous period, he said, the protests of the Vietnam War era and later the trauma of the Watergate scandal were moments when politics appeared to be careening off the rails.
But he added: “I must admit that it’s probably as rough right now as I have seen it in years in the Senate.”
Americans delivering a verdict
Americans are already delivering a verdict on their current leaders. Congress’ job approval rating regularly dips below 20% over its apparent inability to get anything done. And Trump took office as the most unpopular new president since polling began.
The Warren imbroglio was just the latest eruption of bitterness on Capitol Hill in recent months. Last June, for instance, civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis led a sit-in in the House as Democratic fury erupted when Republicans refused to allow a vote on gun control measures.
More recently, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch dismissed arguments against Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin as “stupid.” That was a striking choice of words from one of the most gentlemanly senators.
Last month, Democrats boycotted hearings for several Trump nominees, prompting Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say it was time for them to “get over” the fact they lost the election.
And last week, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota took a rhetorical swing at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during a committee hearing when Cruz was not in the room, earning a rebuke from Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who called his charge “untoward and inappropriate.”
In one of the more symbolic jabs, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer voted against McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, in her confirmation vote to become transportation secretary.
Such spats might not get a second look in many walks of life. But they are extraordinary in the Senate, which prides itself on a level of decorum that seems anachronistic in the modern age. What is so notable about the recent political ugliness is not that it reveals political differences. It’s the personal nature of the affronts that seems new.
Former Sen. Ted Kaufman, who spent decades working for then-Sen. Joe Biden and succeeded him as Delaware senator, says the mood in Washington has deteriorated since he left the chamber in 2009. He lays a hefty share of blame for the hyper partisanship cleaving Washington at the feet of the new President.
“The President is to this day the moral leader of the country,” Kaufman said, warning that Trump’s propensity to personally attack his opponents would lower the tone further in the wider political debate. “It is going to become okay not just in the Senate but throughout the country.”
Something quintessential is being lost
The sour personal interaction on the Hill has some senators worried that something quintessential is being lost in the chamber even as they often blame the other side for the worst transgressions.
“I’m always worried about the breakdown in civility,” said Sen. Tom Udall, whose father and uncle were congressmen and whose cousin was also a senator. “I come from a family where my father and my uncle were champions of civility, of building consensus and I hate all of this.”
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi blamed the discord on a demoralized Democratic Party.
“I’ve never seen the losing party in a national election exhibit this level of disappointment,” he told CNN.
Democrats would counter that their candidate, Hillary Clinton, easily won the popular vote in the presidential election and that Trump has shattered most conventions on how presidents should behave.
Trump won the White House with an abrasive promise to incite disruption and to destroy the political elites he blames for what he sees as a national crisis.
So he’s unlikely to be a peacemaker.
Trump lambasted Washington lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in his searing inaugural address on January 20.
“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it,” he said.
Hardly serene before Trump
But to blame the new president entirely for the dysfunction would be unfair. Washington was hardly serene before Trump’s arrival on the scene.
Smith believes the combination of emboldened party leaders, a more partisan political environment fanned by outside influences on lawmakers and the growing homogeneity of political parties that has seen cross-party coalitions disappear have added up to a moment of fevered confrontation on Capitol Hill.
“Really over three or four decades the two parties in the Senate have engaged in an intensifying parliamentary war. It involves minority obstruction to majority action on legislation,” he said. “And it involves the majority response that means cracking down on the minority whenever it can.”
And there’s every indication the mood is going to get a lot worse.
In recent months, simmering fury on Capitol Hill was exacerbated by the GOP’s refusal to even give a hearing to Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court. The impasse leave Democrats in no mood to help speed the path of Trump’s pick for the same seat, Neil Gorsuch. Now the GOP is considering the “nuclear option” – a rules change that would incite Democratic incandescence – to beat a possible filibuster with only Republican votes.
Democrats, under pressure pressure from liberals who have experienced a political awakening since Trump’s election, are also in a mood for revenge, believing the GOP handcuffed Obama’s presidency with endless obstruction. And they believe the administration is rushing through some of the most controversial Cabinet nominees in recent history and thwarting their attempts to fully scrutinize them.
Absent some kind of partisan realignment in the years to come, it seems unlikely that this generation of Washington politicians will be the last to lament the partisan swamp in which they swim.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of the Watergate scandal.