Saturday, March 17 , 2018, 1:35 pm | A Few Clouds 58º


Jamie Stiehm: Senate Forever Loses Its Ways for Neil Gorsuch

On the gloomy gray morning the Senate changed its ways and character forever, John Glenn, the legendary astronaut and senator from Ohio, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the river. One Senate village elder was there to shed a tear for his friend: Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt.

Leahy, 76, had to book it back in the rain for Senate floor votes that extinguished the right of the minority to block a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. That may not sound like much, but the court has had many contentious, big-deal 5-4 votes recently, like Bush v. Gore in 2000. Across the way from the Capitol, the creamy marble court is sacred, contested ground.

Stepping into the solemn Senate chamber, you feel the weight of the moment. It’s rare to see the 100 senators gathered and seated — and suspended and soundless in their fury.

It’s not every day at the Capitol that the Senate buries its right to an old-fashioned filibuster any Supreme Court confirmation. It took long journeys into night to go “nuclear,” but that’s what happened in their high-flown room.

Smooth-talking U.S. Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, is already a change agent in the capital. Of course, he was not present in the room.

Then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stood and said, “It’s unfortunate that (Democrats) have brought us to this point.”

Of course, it was the culmination of McConnell’s shrewd gambit. He played to his party base by denying the usual hearing to then-President Barack Obama’s nominee to the same seat, Judge Merrick Garland, last spring. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., denounced McConnell’s refusal as “unforgivable.”

Murphy declared the center of the Senate might not hold any more, if the rules were changed for Gorsuch to be railroaded through. Once the rule changes, it is permanent. The rules changed by a series of votes Thursday. Gorsuch was confirmed Friday — before the Senate break for Easter and Passover. Even Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., voted against his fellow Coloradan.

Actually, all Democrats did was assert their right to require a 60-vote bar for passage — in this case, Gorsuch’s confirmation. In the lore of the Senate, the filibuster forces the Senate to be more bipartisan, open to debate and deliberation.

So much for that. The 52 Republicans could not muster enough “aye” votes, with the Democrats almost all together in newfound team spirit.

Now comes their worst fear, voiced in the halls as the Gorsuch votes hung heavy: Soon they would have the partisan squabbles of the House of Representatives. The Senate prides itself on its dignity in the upper chamber.

Chief Justice John Roberts, his critics charge, runs a corporate high court that has opened the gates to endless “dark money” as political speech in campaigns. The empty seat, once taken by Gorsuch, tilts the court hard right, 5-4.

The Republican Senate, too, is closely divided, 52-48, and it quickly became clear that the Gorsuch nomination was going to break the parties apart like a canyon.

Gorsuch, 49, spoke well without giving anything away, to the frustration of Democrats who believe he is opposed to the rights of women, workers, detainees and autistic children. They see him as staunchly on the wrong side of progress and human rights.

Gorsuch was asked many probing questions at his hearing, but not the one I have: Is he related to a wealthy Baltimore slave owner, Edward Gorsuch? In a well-known legal case back in the 1850s, Edward Gorsuch went to court to reclaim some fugitive slaves. He was later killed in a large slave uprising that fanned the flames of the slavery issue.

The man with dazzling credentials, from Harvard and Oxford, Gorusch may or may not be descended from this man, but he might as well be.

He occupies the same privileged white male heights of society. He loves to ski and look down on us all from a distance. In his perfectly blessed life, he has not shown much sympathy for those born to a measure of struggle.

Republican senators, as if they won a game, high-fived. Long live the old Senate.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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