Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court tore the Senate Judiciary Committee apart. Now the panel is trying to put itself back together ahead of another contentious nomination fight.
The committee has a new chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose fiery denunciation of Democrats during Kavanaugh’s hearing on sexual assault allegations cemented his turn as one of President Donald Trump’s most aggressive allies in Congress. It has three Democrats mulling a presidential run in 2020, all of whom played central roles in cross-examining Kavanaugh.
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And now it has William Barr before it — Trump’s attorney general nominee who will come under fierce questioning at his confirmation hearing this week over his views of presidential power and how he will oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
It will be up to Graham to set the tone. And he’s not making any promises.
“I’m going to let it be up to [Democrats]. You pick these fights at your own peril. [Barr will] be challenged for sure. Hopefully respectfully,” Graham said.
Countered Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii): “I hope that Lindsey Graham can be the Lindsey Graham that I worked on immigration reform with. And not the Lindsey Graham who yelled during the Kavanaugh hearing.”
Even amid the latest spikes of polarization, the Senate Judiciary Committee has stood out for holding some of the Senate’s most vitriolic battles during Trump’s presidency. And as the government shutdown stretches into a fourth week, partisan tensions are even more inflamed. How senators handle the Barr nomination will give the clearest signs yet of whether the committee can move on from the Kavanaugh episode and how it will treat a series of key Cabinet and judicial appointments in the new Congress.
Senators in both parties say they are hoping to leave the past behind and keep Barr’s hearing from devolving into the acrimony left from Kavanaugh’s hearing. But no one thinks it’s going to be easy, and each side seems to think it’s up to the other to behave themselves.
“Hopefully he won’t go after the senators in any manner,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who was asked by Kavanaugh if she had a drinking problem.
“I guess the question we all have is, ‘Is this going to be Kavanaugh 2.0?’ Where it’s really not about the search for the truth, it’s more about character assassination,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “So I can hope for the best, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Barr will struggle to attract Democratic votes but can be confirmed without bipartisan support, perhaps lessening the drama of the outcome. Republicans now enjoy a two-seat majority on the panel, and swing vote Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has retired as well, making it easier for Republicans to move the nomination through committee. A simple majority is needed to confirm him on the floor.
“There were some hurt feelings on both sides as a result of the Kavanaugh hearing. But I like to think that most if not all members of the Judiciary [Committee] are adults, as opposed to petulant millennials,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).
Still, he acknowledged the committee can be explosive: “As I’ve told friends of mine, you don’t have to be crazy to serve in the U.S. Senate; they’ll gladly train you.”
The Judiciary Committee has been the site of a series of remarkable battles in the Trump era. It was there that Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) took the rare step of testifying against former colleague Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be attorney general. Neil Gorsuch came through the committee as Senate Republicans finished off the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees. And finally, there was Kavanaugh’s hearing, which sparked emotional testimony from both him and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
Meanwhile lower-level court nominations have become more and more partisan, and Democrats have accused Republicans of pushing through unqualified nominees and rushing through hearings to fill the courts with conservatives.
Barr’s appearance will also be at the first high-profile hearing since the start of the 2020 presidential cycle.
With committee members Booker, Klobuchar and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) all considering presidential runs, Barr’s hearing will give those senators another national platform to take on the Trump administration. Booker drew national attention and some mockery from Republicans for his “I am Spartacus” moment, when he said he would risk getting expelled from the Senate in order to release documents about Kavanaugh’s tenure in the White House under President George W. Bush.
Barr’s nomination is already off to a rough start, with several Senate Democrats complaining that Barr did not reach out to their offices for a typical courtesy meeting before the hearing. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that “Barr’s refusal to meet with Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee is entirely unprecedented and unacceptable.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, has called for Trump to withdraw Barr’s nomination — arguing Barr has disqualified himself from leading the Justice Department because of his previous criticism of Mueller’s probe.
In a memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last year, Barr wrote that Mueller’s investigation of possible obstruction of justice was “fatally misconceived.” Democrats fear Barr is ready to align himself with Trump, who has repeatedly railed against Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion between the Kremlin and Trump campaign.
Despite the partisan tension, lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee insist that the panel is trying to recover and that the Barr hearing will be different.
For one, Barr’s role as attorney general is an appointment to a Cabinet agency, not a lifetime appointment to the country’s most powerful court. They also say that the circumstances around the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing were unique, given the rise of the #MeToo movement and the passions surrounding the sexual assault allegations that polarized both liberals and conservatives.
Barr’s record, however controversial to Democrats, is unlikely to spark the same kind of emotion that Kavanaugh did.
“Those who were lamenting the fate of Kavanaugh should put it into perspective,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) “A year before, another Georgetown Prep graduate went through the Senate Judiciary Committee process much differently than Mr. Kavanaugh, and I think it just reflects the fact that their circumstances were so much different.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chaired the committee during the Kavanaugh hearings, said that he hoped Democrats would go relatively easy on Barr, given his previous tenure as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.
Grassley also noted he worked with Booker and other committee members on bipartisan legislation like criminal justice reform after the Kavanaugh fight, so the conflict hasn’t lingered.
“You disagree today and you agree tomorrow,” he said.