Last month, the foreboding that had settled on Washington eased, as congressional Republicans tried and failed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. What worked effectively as a campaign slogan ran head on into the reality that Americans actually support health insurance for their fellow citizens.
But after the U.S. Supreme Court nomination battle, the gloom is back. Much was written about the fight that led to rolling back the filibuster, further polarizing an already deeply divided Senate. Hardly anything has been written about the architect of Neil Gorsuch’s ascension to a lifetime court seat at age 49.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate majority leader, arrived in Washington back in 1984 as a disciple of Sen. John Sherman Cooper — a legendary Republican moderate who opposed the Vietnam War and succeeded in winning re-election at a time when the South was solidly Democratic, and segregationist.
McConnell was the only Republican challenger who defeated an incumbent Democrat in 1984, despite Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election. Arriving in town, he saw which way the winds were blowing and moved swiftly over to the GOP’s conservative flank.
If McConnell has any political principles left, he keeps them well hidden. What he’s interested in is power, and he’s now an expert manipulator.
Who would have imagined, when Justice Antonin Scalia died last Feb. 13, that before his death was even publicly announced, McConnell would insist that under no circumstances would the Senate consider a nomination, though President Barack Obama still had a year in office; respect for the dead is now obsolete.
McConnell’s brazen and unprecedented move “worked,” in the way Washington calculates these things. The seat remained vacant more than a year, then was filled by Donald Trump’s nominee. McConnell won, and democracy lost.
Which brings us to Maine’s Susan Collins, who has burnished her moderate credentials even as McConnell was trading in his. After the votes to seat Gorsuch, Collins called it a “profoundly sad day” for the Senate, and said, “Change will require restoring the ethos that has made this body a model for the world for 230 years.”
She said nothing about her own role in eroding that ethos. Since Donald Trump was elected, Collins has performed a delicate dance in appearing to oppose the worst of Trump’s nominees while never crossing McConnell, or even questioning his decision-making.
On the floor, she voted against the nomination of Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed as education secretary when Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie. DeVos is a billionaire proponent of charter schools with demonstrated contempt for the public schools she’s now charged with overseeing.
Collins voted to advance DeVos’ nomination in committee when she could have blocked it. She explained she was honoring the Senate tradition that each Cabinet nominee have a floor vote.
She saw it differently for Gorsuch; a single nomination was worth abandoning Senate rules. She cited as precedent the 2013 decision by Democrats to end the filibuster for presidential nominees except the Supreme Court, though the situations weren’t comparable.
In 2013, Senate Republicans, stunned by Obama’s re-election, filibustered all of his nominees for important posts. The most discussed were three vacancies on the District of Columbia Appeals Court, but there were many others, including the National Labor Relations Board and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
It’s hard to see what else Democratic Leader Harry Reid could have done, given this wholesale rejectionism. In November, after nine months of obstruction, he invoked the “nuclear option” and the nominees were confirmed. McConnell, by contrast, conferred only with himself, and for about five minutes, before invoking the second “nuclear option.”
In 2013, Collins was all for rejection. She even indulged the preposterous argument that the D.C. Appeals Court, the only federal court except the Supreme Court that chooses its cases, was underworked, and should have its vacancies parceled out to other courts. The bottom line: Collins never questions her party leader’s imperatives, behind the scenes or in public.
Given her party’s dominant positions on global warming, tax cuts for the richest, and – still — health care, Collins may seem “moderate,” but that’s only because our politics has trended rightward for decades.
She said Judge Gorsuch was mainstream, yet his decisions reflexively favor corporations over employees, even in the case of the trucker fired for driving his big rig out of a snowstorm because he feared freezing, or the Hobby Lobby case, where one corporate CEO’s sensibilities overrode the health care needs of 32,000 employees.
It was, indeed, a sad day for the Senate. Susan Collins helped make it so.
Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]