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Can the Senate’s comeback continue in an acrimonious 118th Congress?

Members are seen during the first day of the 118th session of Congress
Greg Nash
Members are seen during the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023.

As the House Republicans made extraordinary history battling each other in an acrimonious and chaotic effort to pick the next Speaker, the Senate quietly convened, swore in seven new members, and generally seemed to enjoy being the “adults in the room,” far from the turmoil on other side of the Capitol.

But the stark contrast masked a more complex reality, reflected by several senators, retiring after long careers, who expressed fears about the future of the Senate. 

As reported by Emily Cochrane in the New York Times, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) “ticked through his frustrations that had piled up in recent year: party leaders devaluing committee work, an institution reluctant to embrace new ideas, and unnamed colleagues unwilling to collaborate or brush up on the details of legislating.” 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) decried the centralization of power in the leaders; “we have an incredible amount of wasted talent,” he stated in his farewell speech. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving senator, grimly observed: “If we don’t start working together more, if we don’t know and respect each other, the world’s greatest deliberative body will sink slowly into irrelevance.”  

Without in any way questioning the depth of these concerns, it is important to recognize that the decline of Congress — particularly the Senate — is the longest-playing story in American politics, matched only by the endless movement of the Republican Party, starting with the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), from conservatism to MAGA radicalism and nihilism. 

Congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann analyzed the decline of Congress in their classic, “The Broken Branch” in 2006. Ten years earlier, in 1996, the Senate experienced a record number of retirements — 14 — by some of the most respected legislative deal makers of their time, including Democrats Sam Nunn (Ga.), Bill Bradley (N.J.), Howell Heflin (Ala.) and David Pryor (Ark.) and Republicans Alan Simpson (Wyo.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and William Cohen (Maine).

The common thread that ran through many of their farewell speeches was a deep dismay about the condition and direction of American politics.  

James Exon, who served 25 years as Nebraska’s senator and governor, put it forcefully in terms that the other departing senators could relate to: 

“Our political process must be ‘re-civilized. … The ever-increasing vicious polarization of the electorate, the us-against-them mentality, has all but swept aside the former preponderance of reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of many legitimate issues. Unfortunately, the traditional art of workable compromise for the ultimate good of the nation, the essence of democracy, is demonstrated eroded.”  

Those speeches came more than a quarter of a century ago, in a period of peace and prosperity. From that point, the Senate spiraled downward, hitting rock bottom with its catastrophic failure to protect Americans and our democracy from Donald Trump in the crisis year of 2020 and in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

In contrast, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed, “the congressional session that just ended was remarkably productive. Major investments in infrastructure, clean energy and technology showed that our government has the capacity to think ahead, not just react to political pressures and short-term problems.”

Moreover, the Senate was able to come together on a bipartisan basis to enact the first gun safety legislation since 1994, safeguard marriage equality, revise the flawed electoral count system and fund the government through Sept. 30. Repeatedly, a significant group of Senate Republicans — ranging from 12 to 19 — joined the Democrats, led by President Biden, Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in making these legislative accomplishments possible. This impressive record compels several conclusions.  

First, while we can respect the dedication and service of retiring senators like Burr, Blunt, Leahy, Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), their experience didn’t save the Senate from decline and failure. Legislating requires skill and some experience; it does not require 30 or 40 years on the Hill. Over the years, countless senators from both parties, such as Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) had a powerful impact within a short time after arriving.  

Second, legislating for our diverse, contentious, country will always be bone-crushingly difficult; it is supposed to be difficult. But good faith engagement in seeking common ground is essential; all the talent and ability in the world count for nothing without the right attitude. 

Politicians operate at the intersection of conviction, calculation and conscience. The Senate succeeded in 2022 because an expanding group of senators from both parties decided that they would not accept spending their careers in a bitterly divided institution that constantly failed the country. Among the Republicans, the “usual suspects” inclined to bipartisanship — Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — were joined by retiring members Portman, Blunt and Burr, but also red state senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Todd Young (R-Ind.) and the unpredictable chameleon, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).  

Third, as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm, all the animals in the barnyard are not equal. Strikingly, Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) curbed his partisanship to support every bipartisan accomplishment other than the marriage equality legislation. Sometimes he urged his caucus to support the efforts; other times, he gave his members room to work. This was not the first time that the Senate has turned on a dime because McConnell changed his approach. 

In 2015, McConnell finally reached his goal of becoming majority leader, and he wanted to prove that he could make the Senate work. Because McConnell’s scorched earth opposition to President Obama’s agenda was the principal cause of six years of bitter gridlock, once he decided to become a constructive player the Senate changed overnight. 

“They’ve really nailed down some festering issues that have been on the agenda for quite a while,” Sarah Binder, a leading expert on Congress, wrote in December 2015. “And they have done it in this sort of remarkably bipartisan way.” 

Unfortunately, 13 months later, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, McConnell abandoned his efforts to bring senators together by announcing that the Senate would not consider any nomination by Obama to fill the vacancy left by Scalia’s death, unleashing a period of bitter division that pervaded the Senate during the Trump years.  

No one should underestimate the challenges that Biden will face on Capitol Hill, particularly when the House has a narrow Republican majority provided by members of the Freedom Caucus and MAGA election deniers. But, hopefully, the Senate will continue to find that addressing the nation’s problems is more rewarding than hyper-partisanship and gridlock.

Ira Shapiro, a former Senate staff member and Clinton administration trade ambassador, completed a trilogy about the Senate with, “The Betrayal: How Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans Abandoned America.”  

Tags 118th Congress Bipartisan legislation Charles Schumer Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy Politics of the United States Richard Burr Richard Shelby Rob Portman Roy Blunt Senate Republicans United States Senate

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