What the Hell Has Happened to the Senate?

The bizarre process we just witnessed is the culmination of tribalism, the continued degradation of norms, and Mitch McConnell.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
“There might be a Svengali-like capacity in Mitch McConnell that I have not been able to discern,” says Norman Ornstein. Above, McConnell on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaking vote for a motion to proceed to the debate on a repeal or partial repeal or replacement or really God-knows-what of Obamacare. Things became even more confusing once it leaked out before the vote that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to be planning for a so-called “skinny repeal,” which would get rid of the law’s individual mandate but keep other aspects of Obamacare intact.

To discuss McConnell’s strategy, and how unprecedented the bizarre process we just witnessed really is, I spoke by phone with Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, with Thomas E. Mann and E.J. Dionne, of the forthcoming One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported. Over the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what people don’t understand about Mitch McConnell, the tribalism that has infected the Republican Congress, and how GOP legislators’ failure to stand up to their leaders does not bode well for their willingness to stand up to a demagogic president.

Isaac Chotiner: Has this procedure been unprecedented, and if so, why should we care?

Norman Ornstein: I first came to Washington in 1969, have watched this process for 48 years, and have never seen anything like this. I haven’t seen anything remotely like this. We have had procedural gimmicks, approaches, things that get people twisted into knots or get the process twisted into knots, and things that were pretty outrageous in the past. Take the three-hour vote in the middle of the night on the Medicare prescription drug bill, a vote that was supposed to last 15 minutes, or the quite remarkable way the Affordable Care Act was passed.

But to have a vote like today proceeding on a bill that is not even apparent to the people promising it will be a bill and preceded by an insane process—that is all unprecedented. To bypass the committees and the experts who know anything about health policy, which is what McConnell did, to create a small rump group that excludes not just all the women but Bill Cassidy, a physician who has some knowledge of health policy, and to have it not written even by this group of 13 old white males but by McConnell and his aides, to have it get this blowback is unlike anything I have ever seen. But much, much worse is getting 50 votes for it!

What does it tell you about Congress, then, that it did get 50 votes? Maybe this is a question about the GOP.

Every one of the people who said they were offended by the procedures had an easy way out of this going back weeks or months! They could have told McConnell that if he wants to operate this way they will not vote for any motion to proceed.

But what is the most troublesome part of this, which goes beyond the colossal damage that could come to the economy or large numbers of people, is that we have, I will be blunt, a deranged president. A danger to the fabric of the society and our way of life as we know it. So we have in our constitutional system not just a culture that pushes back against this but a whole web of institutions designed to guard against a deranged or autocratic or kleptocratic president, and right at the forefront of that is the Congress that is not supposed to jump to the tune of the president and members with larger responsibilities. This vote tells me: Be very afraid.

OK, but how do you understand them not caring or not pressuring the leadership to behave differently?

There might be a Svengali-like capacity in Mitch McConnell that I have not been able to discern in his ability to keep everyone together. There is also a tribal element to our politics—and it is far more significant on the Republican side—that seems to overwhelm everything else. People of otherwise admirable character and intelligence, when it comes to the prospect of being singled out or shunned for not going along with their tribe, simply cannot resist. We have seen this with cults and religions.

How much fear do you have that this type of legislating will be normalized?

Every time you do something that violates standards of behavior, you have set a new precedent. I always come back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan writing about “defining deviancy down.” Now, I doubt that we will find this as a normal practice. But one of the things that happens when you have a Republican Party like what we have seen through the Clinton and especially Obama years, voting in unison against everything not because they were kept out of the deliberations but because of a direct strategic desire to block policies and delegitimize them, and you come into the majority having inflamed your donors and constituents, it means that in the Senate, your only option is a reconciliation bill and twisting yourself in pretzels to make things work that way. We may see more of that in the future.

As a longtime antagonist and watcher of Mitch McConnell, is there anything that you think is misunderstood about him?

Do not underestimate his ability. When everyone thought this whole thing was dead, I put the odds at 60-40 that it would move forward. He has an extraordinary capacity to hold his caucus together and that goes back years, where he could even get 59 senators to vote against the DISCLOSE Act, including people like Olympia Snowe and John McCain, whose legislative accomplishment was blown apart by Citizens United.

But the one thing that frustrates me most about the popular conception of Senator McConnell, which has been crafted and repeated and tenderly used by the broader pundit and journalistic community, is that he is a man of the Senate and cares about the Senate and is concerned about procedures. The notion that that has ever been true is highly questionable, and the notion it has been true over the last decade is farcical. This is a guy who blew up the Senate in the Obama years and did more to blow up the norms than any three or five majority leaders before him put together. And now he has moved to blow up even more.

Did anything about McCain this week surprise you?

I have known him and worked with him, and I love him in many ways. It is not a surprise that he got up after his treatment to come to Washington. The fact that he voted for the motion to proceed is a pretty sad reflection—

So how do you understand it? You know him. He isn’t running for election again, we assume. He dislikes the president. What is it?

I come back to what I said earlier. The tribal instinct runs strong in these people. When you are told you cannot give a victory to the other side, and this is all about whether you are a Republican and pride in your own party, he was somehow swayed.