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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

How to bridge the Senate’s divide

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination lays bare problems in Washington.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Friday she would

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Friday she would vote in favor of Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. Photo Credit: AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Now what?

With Brett Kavanaugh having ascended to the Supreme Court, following a god-awful confirmation process, how do we bring some dignity back to our government?

How do we fix the U.S. Senate?

The devolution of the supposedly deliberative chamber into a home for unrelenting partisan warfare seems complete, though it’s a fool’s errand to predict where Washington will bottom out. Many Democrats announced their implacable opposition to Kavanaugh before they heard a word from him. Many Republicans announced their unwavering support under the same circumstances. When new information was uncovered, only the rhetoric changed. It got worse.

A repair job is possible, though probably not while Sen. Mitch McConnell is around. There is good reason why historian Christopher R. Browning calls the majority leader “the gravedigger of American democracy.”

The Senate must abandon the 50-vote threshold for Supreme Court confirmation and return to 60. Under that standard, Kavanaugh likely would not have been nominated because he never would have passed muster. McConnell himself asked President Donald Trump not to pick Kavanaugh because of his paper trail — McConnell knew Kavanaugh could be attacked truthfully as the rabid partisan he is.

How did we get from 60? Simple. When your party controls the White House and the Senate, you’re pretty much guaranteed a win at 50.

A decade ago, Republicans led by McConnell systematically blocked lower court appointments from President Barack Obama. Then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid unfortunately took the bait and lowered the 60-vote threshold to 50 for those nominees. When the GOP retook the Senate, McConnell disgracefully refused to even give Merrick Garland a hearing as Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the high court and kept the seat open for more than a year. Then, to get Neil Gorsuch past Democratic seething, McConnell used Reid’s move as precedent and blew up the 60-vote standard for the Supreme Court — the second bridge too far.

With Kavanaugh on the cusp of confirmation, McConnell pronounced the looming affirmative vote as “vindication.” Of his malevolent chicanery, sure. But when women across the country were in open revolt over the sexual abuse allegations against Kavanaugh, when more of the nation wanted him rejected than confirmed, when GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch dismissively told a group of women protesters he would talk to them when they “grow up,” McConnell’s boast was tone-deaf partisanship at its worst.

History will view McConnell not as a lion of the Senate but as a cancer, destroying it from within. He’s had accomplices from both sides, but as the architect, the collapse of the Senate is mostly on him.

Setting the bar at 60 tells presidents they must steer clear of the fringes. It eliminates a take-no-prisoners approach. Hopefully, it starts to address the reality identified by Sen. Jeff Flake, who told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that “there’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”

When the Democrats are back in charge, and in our political cycles eventually they will be, they should resist the overwhelming urge to keep the threshold at 50. That would be living down to Kavanaugh’s dictum that “what goes around comes around.” Opposition to doing that seems hard-wired into their genes at this point, but Democrats need to be the bigger party and go back to 60.

Kavanaugh’s ascension will damage the court, but not destroy it. But the arc of history is long. If the Senate continues its headlong plunge into the chasm of rancor, it’ll take the Supreme Court with it.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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