WASHINGTON – A milestone Supreme Court confirmation that endured a flawed process. The collapse of a bipartisan compromise for more pandemic funds. The departure of a stalwart of the dwindling band of moderate House Republicans.
Party-line fights on Capitol Hill are as old as the republic, and they routinely escalate as elections approach. Yet three events from a notable week illustrate how Congress' near- and long-term paths point toward intensifying partisanship.
THE SENATE'S SUPREME COURT BATTLE
Democrats rejoiced Thursday when the Senate by 53-47 confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female justice. They crowed about a bipartisan stamp of approval from the trio of Republicans who supported it: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.
Yet by historical standards, the three opposition party votes were paltry and underscored the recent trend of Supreme Court confirmations becoming loyalty tests on party ideology. That's a departure from a decades-long norm when senators might dislike a nominee’s judicial philosophy but defer to a president's pick, barring a disqualifying revelation.
Murkowski said her support for Jackson was partly “rejection of the corrosive politicization" of how both parties consider Supreme Court nominations, which "is growing worse and more detached from reality by the year.”
Republicans said they would treat Jackson respectfully, and many did. Their questions and criticisms of her were pointed and partisan, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., saying “the Senate views itself as a co-partner in this process” with the president.
Yet some potential 2024 GOP presidential contenders seemed to use Jackson’s confirmation to woo hard-right support. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., misleadingly accused her of being unusually lenient on child pornography offenders. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., suggested she might have defended Nazis at the Nuremburg trials after World War II, before she was born.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said some Republicans “went overboard, as far as I’m concerned, to the extreme,” reflecting “the reality of politics on Capitol Hill.” Cotton was “fundamentally unfair, but that is his tradition,” said Durbin.
SUPREME COURT BATTLES PAST
Senate approval of high court nominees by voice vote, without bothering to hold roll calls, was standard for most of the 20th century. Conservative Antonin Scalia sailed into the Supreme Court by 98-0 in 1986, while liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg won 96-3 approval seven years later.
There were bitter fights. Democrats blocked conservative Robert Bork’s nomination in 1987 and unsuccessfully opposed Clarence Thomas’ ascension in 1991 after he was accused of sexual harassment.
Hard feelings intensified in early 2016. McConnell, then majority leader, blocked the Senate from even considering President Barack Obama's pick of Merrick Garland to replace the deceased Scalia. McConnell cited the presidential election nearly nine months away, infuriating Democrats.
Donald Trump was elected and ultimately filled three vacancies over near-unanimous Democratic opposition.
Democrats opposed Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman decades earlier, which he denied. They voted solidly against Amy Coney Barrett after Trump and McConnell rushed through her nomination when a vacancy occurred just weeks before Election Day 2020, a sprint Democrats called hypocritical.
COVID SPENDING FIGHT, TRANSFORMED
Senators from both parties agreed to a $10 billion COVID-19 package Monday that President Joe Biden wants for more therapeutics, vaccines and tests. With BA.2, the new omicron variant, washing across the country, it seemed poised for congressional approval.
Hours later, bargainers led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, seemed blindsided when their compromise was derailed. Republicans wanted to add an extension of an expiring crackdown on migrants crossing the Mexican border that Trump imposed in 2020, citing the pandemic’s public health threat.
Many Republicans were skeptical that more COVID-19 money was necessary. But their demand for an immigration amendment transformed a fight over how much more to spend on a disease that's killed 980,000 people in the U.S. into a battle over border security, tailor-made for GOP political campaigns ahead.
Immigration divides Democrats, and Republicans believe the issue can further solidify their chances of winning congressional control in November’s elections. Playing defense, Schumer postponed debate on the COVID-19 bill.
Democrats deserved some blame for being outmaneuvered. House Democrats shot down a $15 billion agreement in March, rejecting compromise budget savings to pay for it.
And in glaringly tone-deaf political timing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced April 1, just as bargainers were completing their latest compromise, that the Trump-era immigration curbs would lapse May 23.
That gave Republicans an irresistible political gift to pursue.
A MODERATE'S FAREWELL
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., announced his retirement Tuesday. He's the fourth of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last year to say they won't seek reelection.
Upton attributed his departure to running in a new district, but that didn't stop Trump from proclaiming: "UPTON QUITS! 4 down and 6 to go.” The House impeached Trump over his incitement of supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, but the GOP-run Senate acquitted him.
Now in his 18th term, Upton's departure subtracts another moderate from a GOP that's shifted rightward in recent years, particularly when it comes to showing fealty to Trump.
The pro-business Upton, 68, was a driving force on one law spurring pharmaceutical development and has worked with Democrats on legislation affecting energy and the auto industry. His bipartisan work and affability placed him in the ever-smaller group of Republicans who draw Democrats' praise.
“To him, bipartisan and compromise are not forbidden words," said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.
PARTY DIFFERENCES, THEN AND NOW
Pitched battles are now habitual over bills financing federal agencies and extending the government’s borrowing authority. When those disputes are resolved and federal shutdowns and defaults averted, lawmakers hail as triumphs what is their most rudimentary task — keeping government functioning.
Despite the divisions over COVID-19 money and Jackson, there has also been cooperation.
Congress overwhelmingly voted Thursday to ban Russian oil and downgrade trade relations with that country following its invasion of Ukraine. There’s progress on bipartisan trade and technology legislation, and a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure measure became law last year.