A landmark Supreme Court affirmation that survived a flawed trial. The failure of a bipartisan compromise for more pandemic funds. The departure of a stalwart from the dwindling ranks of moderate Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Faction fights on Capitol Hill are as old as the Republic, and they routinely escalate as elections near. But three events in a remarkable week illustrate how Congress’ near- and long-term paths point toward intensifying partisanship.
THE SENATE SUPREME COURT BATTLE
Democrats rejoiced Thursday when the Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson 53:47 as the first black judge. They cheered a bipartisan stamp of approval from the trio of Republicans supporting him: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.
But by historical standards, votes from the three opposition parties have been paltry, underscoring the recent trend of Supreme Court affirmations becoming tests of loyalty to party ideology. That’s a departure from a decades-old norm whereby senators may dislike a candidate’s legal philosophy but bow to a president’s election and rule out a disqualifying revelation.
Murkowski said her support for Jackson was, in part, “a rejection of the corrosive politicization” of how both parties view Supreme Court nominations, which “gets worse and more removed from reality every year.”
Republicans said they would treat Jackson with respect, and many did. Her questions and criticisms of her were pointed and partisan, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying “the Senate sees itself as a co-partner in this process” with the President.
Still, some potential contenders for the 2024 GOP presidency appeared to use Jackson’s endorsement to garner support from the far right. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., falsely accused them of being unusually lenient towards child pornography offenders. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggested that she may have defended Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said some Republicans “have gone overboard to the extreme, in my opinion,” reflecting “the reality of politics on Capitol Hill.” Cotton is “fundamentally unfair, but that’s his tradition,” Durbin said.
FIGHTS OF THE SUPREME COURT PASSED
Senate approval of Supreme Court nominees by ballot, without bothering to hold appeals, was standard for most of the 20th century. Conservative Antonin Scalia sailed 98-0 to the Supreme Court in 1986, while liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg won 96-3 seven years later.
There were bitter fights. Democrats blocked Conservative Robert Bork’s nomination in 1987 and unsuccessfully resisted the rise of Clarence Thomas in 1991 after he was accused of sexual molestation.
In early 2016, the hard feelings intensified. McConnell, then Majority Leader, prevented the Senate from even considering President Barack Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland to replace the late Scalia. McConnell cited the upcoming presidential election nearly nine months away and infuriated Democrats.
Donald Trump was elected and eventually filled three vacancies against near-unanimous Democratic opposition.
They opposed Brett Kavanaugh after he had been accused of sexually assaulting a woman decades earlier. They voted firmly against Amy Coney Barrett after Trump and McConnell rushed through their nomination when a vacancy opened up just weeks before Election Day 2020, a sprint Democrats called hypocritical.
COVID SPEND FIGHTING, TRANSFORMS
Senators from both parties on Monday agreed on a $10 billion COVID-19 package that President Joe Biden wants for more therapeutics, vaccines and tests. With BA.2, the new Omicron variant, circulating across the country, it seemed poised for congressional approval.
Hours later, negotiators led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, seemed blindsided as their compromise derailed. Republicans wanted to add an extension to an expiring crackdown on migrants crossing the Mexican border imposed by Trump in 2020, citing the public health threat posed by the pandemic.
Many Republicans were skeptical about the need for more COVID-19 funds. But their call for an immigration change turned a fight over how much more to spend on a disease that has killed 980,000 Americans into a battle over border security tailored for upcoming GOP political campaigns.
Immigration is dividing Democrats, and Republicans believe the issue can further cement their chances of gaining control of Congress in November’s election. Schumer played defense and postponed the debate on the COVID-19 law.
The Democrats deserved some blame for being outmaneuvered. House Democrats in March rejected a $15 billion deal, turning down compromise budget cuts to pay for it.
And in utterly sluggish political timing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week, as negotiators finalized their latest compromise, that Trump-era immigration restrictions would expire on May 23.
That gave Republicans an irresistible political gift to pursue.
THE FAREWELL OF A MODERATE
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., announced his resignation on Tuesday. He is the fourth of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year to say they will not seek re-election.
Upton attributed his exit to running in a new county, but that didn’t stop Trump from proclaiming, “UPTON GOES UP! 4 down and 6 still.” The House of Representatives has impeached Trump for inciting supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but the GOP-led Senate has acquitted him.
Now in his 18th term, Upton’s departure takes another moderate point from a GOP that has shifted to the right in recent years, particularly when it comes to showing allegiance to Trump.
The 68-year-old pro-business Upton was a driving force behind legislation encouraging pharmaceutical development and has worked with Democrats on legislation affecting the energy and auto industries. His work across the aisle and his kindness placed him in the dwindling group of Republicans receiving Democrat praise.
“His bipartisanship and compromise are not forbidden words,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.
PARTY DIFFERENCES, THEN AND NOW
Open battles are now common over bills to fund federal agencies and expand government borrowing powers. When those disputes are settled and federal shutdowns and defaults averted, lawmakers celebrate as triumphs their most basic task—keeping government functioning.
Despite disagreements over COVID-19 funds and Jackson, there was also a collaboration.
Congress on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to ban Russian oil and downgrade trade ties with that country following its invasion of Ukraine. There is progress on bipartisan trade and technology legislation, and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure became law last year.