Published 10:05 PM EDT Oct 3, 2018
WASHINGTON – The Senate has been called the world's greatest deliberative body, the saucer to cool the tea brewed by their more hot-headed colleagues in the House.
But the upper chamber – where the average age is north of 60 – has been less of a genteel tea party and more of a barroom brawl as the fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has gotten increasingly nasty with salacious claims being hurled by both sides.
Eight of the ten Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats accused Republicans Wednesday of wrongly stating that past FBI investigations found no hint of any inappropriate sexual behavior or alcohol abuse by Kavanaugh.
More "baseless innuendo" and "false smears," Republicans responded.
That came a day after Senate Republicans released information about the purported sexual habits of Julie Swetnick, the third woman to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
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"This is a despicable and desperate attempt by Republican leadership to discredit (Swetnick)," responded Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
What the average voter was expected to make of all the allegations was anybody's guess.
"As a Nebraska woman put it to me a few nights ago, what the hell is happening to this country," Sen. Ben Sasse said when he took the floor Wednesday night to talk about "a nation that is accelerating our descent into tribalism, and about our continuing decline here in the Senate as a deliberative body." An emotional Sasse sniffled throughout the speech.
But while the partisan heat around Kavanaugh’s nomination is certainly historic, it might not be necessarily unprecedented.
“We see this backchannel, partisan sniping when the stakes are really high,” said Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. “While I don’t think it’s never happened before, this saga is certainly not the formal way I like to think American politics should play out.”
President Donald Trump amplified things on Tuesday when he openly mocked Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s first accuser, who testified last week that she was sexually assaulted by Kavanuagh when both were in high school.
“I had one beer, that’s all I remember,” Trump said at a rally in Mississippi, pretending to be Ford.
The three Republican senators who have not said whether they will vote for Kavanuagh – Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – all criticized Trump's remarks.
But entrenched senators on both sides of the aisle have contributed to the discourse.
The maneuvers continued as Kavanaugh and Ford prepared to testify last week.
In a late-night email sent to reporters on the eve of the hearing, Republicans revealed they had interviewed two men who told the committee that they, not Kavanaugh, "had the encounter with Dr. Ford in 1982 that is the basis” of her claims.
Democrats said the release of the previously unknown interviews was a coordinated effort to “muddy the waters” before Ford testified.
During her testimony before the committee, Ford said she was "100 percent" certain that Kavanaugh was the teen who assaulted her that night.
This week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley wrote in a letter to Ford's attorney that a former boyfriend of hers told the committee he saw Ford coach a friend on how to take a polygraph. Grassley said that raises concerns about the reliability of the polygraph Ford took.
Ford's legal team rejected the former boyfriend's account.
Also Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Republicans posted on their website comments from a man who said he had a relationship with Swetnick in the 1990s. Dennis Ketterer used what he said were details of her sex life to cast doubt on her claims about Kavanaugh.
Swetnick has not accused Kavanaugh of assaulting her, but of engaging in "abusive behavior" toward teenage girls while he was in high school.
Her attorney called Ketterer's statement a "piece of garbage."
On Wednesday, Democrats implied that – contrary to what Republicans claim – past FBI investigations of Kavanugh found something related to inappropriate sexual conduct or alcohol abuse.
Judiciary Committee Democrats said they're limited in what they can say publicly. But in a letter to Grassley, the Democrats said Republicans were wrong to tweet that past investigations found nothing.
"We urge you to ensure that these Twitter posts are promptly corrected," the Democrats, led by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, wrote. (Democratic committee members Chris Coons of Delaware and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota did not sign the letter.)
Judiciary Committee Republicans stood by their statement.
"Nothing in the tweet is inaccurate or misleading," committee Republicans tweeted. "More baseless innuendo and more false smears from Senate Democrats."
The initial posts, tweeted yesterday by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, said the FBI interviewed nearly 150 people for six prior investigations of Kavanaugh.
"Nowhere in any of these six FBI reports, which the committee has reviewed on a bipartisan basis, was there ever a whiff of ANY issue – at all – related in any way to inappropriate sexual behavior of alcohol abuse," the tweet said.
Democrats said they're concerned that Republicans will similarly mischaracterize the results of the latest investigation, which senators are expected to receive Thursday. They also said the Senate should return to "bipartisan cooperation" and agree on ground rules for publicly discussing information from the FBI. Since Republicans have already tweeted how many people were interviewed in prior investigations, they complained, Democrats should be able to say how many people the FBI talked to this week.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, responded that Democrats are "back to innuendo and cloak and dagger attacks with information they've had access to for months."
Neiheisel, the University of Buffalo political scientist, said there's a long history of below-the-belt shots between parties stem back to the presidential campaign of Thomas Jefferson when both candidates were hurling insults at one another’s mothers.
“That’s not to say it’s OK," Neiheisel said, "because I’m sure that people are quite exhausted by this complete polarization between parties.”