Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) rattled off questions Thursday to the chamber’s presiding officer, designed to embarrass Republicans just ahead of a historic rules change to ease the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
A few feet to his right, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat silently, giggling to himself at one point.
As relationships go, the new Democratic leader and the longtime GOP leader have gotten off to one of the worst starts of the last 40 years in the Senate. Democrats turned the nomination process for President Trump’s Cabinet into a long march, stretching out even the most noncontroversial slots into a marathon process that limited McConnell’s time to take up other legislative issues.
Several Democrats, including Schumer, even voted against the confirmation of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. And then, at Schumer’s urging, Democrats blocked Gorsuch with the second-ever successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee, prompting McConnell to retaliate with a party-line vote on the rules that put an end to super-majority thresholds for all presidential appointments.
“If they were looking for 10 different ways to get off to a bad start, this would be 11,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close friend to both leaders, said after Thursday’s confrontation.
But Alexander, along with several other senators and senior advisers, suggested that the two leaders still have the chance to build the kind of relationship that can salvage some of the glory the Senate lost over the past decade of partisan gamesmanship.
There’s little time before their first big test, just four weeks away, when the legislation that funds the government is set to expire. As they’ve publicly fought over Gorsuch, McConnell and Schumer have privately led negotiations aiming for a three-way deal among House leaders and Trump officials for a large bipartisan funding outline for the rest of 2018.
The leaders had a productive face-to-face meeting this week, according to one Senate aide, and Alexander said he is optimistic that deal will be completed this month.
“There’s no reason they can’t, very quickly, get back to work defending the Senate as an institution and getting things done, there’s no reason they can’t do that. They both know how to do it,” he said.
The importance of the McConnell-Schumer bond can seem insignificant in a world where the new president’s campaign is under investigation for possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election, where the Middle East sees new crises each week.
But for the functioning of the Senate, it’s incredibly critical that McConnell and Schumer reach at least a comfortable working relationship. The nature of the Senate has become increasingly anchored around the two leaders. A generation of powerful committee chairmen from each party — whose stature equaled or even eclipsed their party leaders — have either died or retired, leaving behind a power vacuum that the floor leaders have consumed.
In that environment, McConnell and Schumer’s predecessor, Harry M. Reid, waged an increasingly hostile relationship throughout the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, including multiple attempts at taking one another out in elections back home. It poisoned the rest of the Senate’s ability to work together, culminating in the 2013 unilateral rules change that Reid orchestrated on all presidential nominees except for the Supreme Court.
McConnell publicly ridiculed his counterpart, saying history might record him as the worst majority leader ever.
In recent weeks, as Republicans headed toward a rules change of their own, they cited Reid’s action a few years ago, over and over. As Democrats defended their pending filibuster of Gorsuch, they cited McConnell’s obstruction of Obama’s nominees — particularly Judge Merrick Garland, the original nominee for this Supreme Court seat, who never was granted a hearing by McConnell.
In that regard, some optimists think that this Gorsuch showdown might well have been the last act of the Reid-McConnell wars rather than first showdown between McConnell and the new Democratic leader. It’s possible that, now that each side has changed rules on a party-line vote, the “nuclear option,” a clean slate might finally appear and a new framework could be built.
“Any relationship can be repaired,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest serving senator. He recalled fierce early fights between Republican Robert J. Dole and Democrat George Mitchell in the late 1980s, but they kept the Senate from combusting amid Clarence Thomas’s confirmation battle and the debate over the first Iraq war.
Leahy, a fierce partisan, considers Republican Howard Baker’s run in the early 1980s as the “best majority leader” ever. “It can be done,” Leahy said.
The stakes only get higher later this year. By the fall, Washington will be engulfed in another effort to increase the Treasury’s ability to borrow money, risking a first-ever default, and the next government-funding measure will expire Sept. 30. Also, the next round of health-care premiums will be announced at that point, potentially putting more pressure on lawmakers to make changes to the Affordable Care Act.
At this point, rank-and-file senators are still blaming the other party’s leader for what has gone wrong. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) accused Schumer and Democrats of giving in to liberal anti-Trump activists in their opposition to Gorsuch.
“Sometimes perception becomes self-reinforcing, and the idea that one would work across the aisle becomes a betrayal to left-wing politics, if you will, which frankly is clearly how this was driven,” Cassidy said.
Many Democrats point the finger at McConnell’s actions. “Everything has been politics for him, trying to keep Obama from being reelected, stopping Obama appointments, stopping Obama legislation. And I don’t know where it leads, it’s trying. It is troubling,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
Alexander believes that, starting with this month’s funding bill, Schumer and McConnell can set aside the previous venom inside the Senate.
“If they’re able to do that, that would demonstrate that the Senate is functioning and that they’re working together as leaders. And it would be a good way to end this chapter and start another one,” he said.