The Senate has long been a place of false gentility, where “my good friend” can be a euphemism for the opposite.
Now, as the Senate prepares to consider an impeachment trial, the acidic tribal politics in the era of Donald Trump is stripping away the veneer of comity from a chamber that’s endured a lengthy slide already.
The partisanship that was rank during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton seems almost quaint 21 years later in a time of declining civility and limited cooperation, with few legislative accomplishments to show for the Senate’s three-and-a-half-day workweeks.
“I think impeachment inevitably makes things worse on both sides — and in the country,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I mean it’s a very divisive time in our country, as you know, and this makes it worse. I go home and people — it’s like shirts and skins.”
It falls to Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s majority leader, and Democrat Chuck Schumer, the minority leader – two men who show little mutual admiration – to try to strike a deal that governs the proceedings and somehow doesn’t diminish the institution.
Otherwise there would be no framework for the length of the trial, rules regarding witnesses, or moves like an early motion to dismiss the charges. If Clinton’s trial is a roadmap, a six-day workweek, with no cell phones allowed in the chamber, could become an enforcement mechanism to keep the proceedings moving.
But with the Senate largely reduced to a conveyer belt for Trump’s judicial and agency nominees, impeachment offers an opportunity for the Senate’s institutionalists to appeal to a higher purpose. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
“It’s going to be a challenge, to be sure,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The House is investigating Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate Democrats, which involved back-channel diplomacy by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Public hearings are set to begin this month, with a vote on articles of impeachment possible by the end of the year.
If the House voted to impeach Trump, it would fall to the Senate to hold a trial, where support from two-thirds of senators would be necessary to convict the president and remove him from office.
During the Clinton trial, the chamber still had many older, accomplished legislators that wielded considerable power and had sway with more junior colleagues. By the time the trial reached the Senate in January 1999, a sense of exhaustion over the Monica Lewinsky scandal permeated the upper body, along with a communal desire to protect the reputation of the chamber.
There was an initial spate of bickering, though it gave way to an agreement governing the allocation of time for the House impeachment managers and Clinton’s defense team. But that deal only came together after a closed-door caucus of the entire Senate, held in the historic Old Senate Chamber.
The Senate’s top leaders in 1999, Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., had a better relationship than McConnell and Schumer. And respected, powerful Senate veterans like Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas., had outsized influence.
“We both understood how vitally important it was to rise above those differences in order to conduct a trial that would inspire the confidence of the public and withstand the unsparing scrutiny of history,” Daschle and Lott wrote recently in a Washington Post essay.
Some longtime observers say the Senate can rise to the occasion again, when senators take on the weighty responsibility of impeachment jurors.
“I’m not saying everybody parks their partisanship at the door, because they don’t, but there is a different feel to how the Senate acts at a time like that.” said David Hoppe, who was Lott’s chief of staff during the Clinton trial. “This is going to be a very powerful moment.”
Should a trial happen, there will inevitably be pressure from the Senate’s institutionalists like Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., to keep it from veering off track. And for Democrats, there is the added pressure of a cluster of Democratic senators running for president who will want to get back to campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“We’re going to have a trial and we all know we’re going to do it promptly. I’m not despairing of them coming up with a good process,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “I’m not assuming it won’t be a good process.”
Still, there is a lot of bad blood that is difficult to ignore. The sting of Brett Kavanaugh’s riotous confirmation to the Supreme Court, two partisan rounds of rules changes, and an unending drumbeat of controversies involving Trump have taken a toll.
“There’s such a wariness and bruised feelings over some of the things that have occurred in the last several years that we’re lacking a level on empathy and communication,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who was in his first term during the Clinton trial.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., one of 15 senators remaining from the Clinton trial, said it’s impossible to predict how the Senate will handle Trump’s impeachment.
“Until you have it in front of your face it’s hard to judge,” Murray said.
“I hope everybody recognizes that this is about history and the future and precedents,” she said. “I think it’s about the case, if and when it’s brought to us.”
— Andrew Taylor