In the most recent outbreak of partisan warfare in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Republicans last night dramatically forced Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to stop speaking.
The presiding officer, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) dramatically declared, "The senator will take her seat."
On a strictly party-line 49-43 vote, the Senate upheld the decision of the presiding officer.
At the time, the Senate was debating confirmation of President Trump's nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as Attorney General. Warren had been reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 asking the Senate to deny Sessions confirmation as a U.S. district court judge.
The letter asserted that Sessions had used "the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters." McConnell demanded that the presiding officer rule that Warren had violated Senate Rule XIX, which states, "No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator."
Democrats argued that the Republicans were selectively enforcing a rule which is rarely invoked. Indeed, the legendary decorum and civility of the Senate appears to be unraveling at an alarming rate. The hyperpartisan polarization of the Senate, which has steadily increased over at least the last two decades, appears to be accelerating fueled by the chaotic start to Trump's presidency and the toxic presidential campaign that preceded it.
For nearly a year, the majority Republicans — in an unprecedented and probably unconstitutional fashion — refused to even consider President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
In fact, McConnell had declared that strategy only hours after Scalia's death and before there was an actual Obama nominee to oppose.
Viewing the Supreme Court seat as "stolen," enraged Democrats have threaten a filibuster of Trump's nominee to fill that position, Judge Neil Gorsuch.
In retaliation, Republicans are threatening the potential use of a parliamentary ploy, labeled the "nuclear option," as a way to twist the Senate rules to allow the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice with just a simple majority, not the 60 votes required under existing Senate rules.
Just in the last few weeks, Senate Democrats have boycotted committee meetings to block votes to confirm two nominees to the Trump Cabinet. The Republican majority reacted by unilaterally changing committee rules that require at least one member of the minority to be present for such votes.
Senate committees went ahead and reported nominees to the floor without any participation from the Democrats.
The polarization of the Senate has been proceeding for some time. In 2004, for example, then-Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), in a move that shocked Senate observers at the time, traveled to then-Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle's home state of South Dakota to campaign against him for reelection.
Senate rules have been abused or stretched to the absurd. The filibuster rule, one of the critical protections of the minority in the Senate, part of its DNA, has been systematically abused as a strategy for obstruction. This has led whichever party happens to be in the majority at times to threaten annihilation of the rule.
The Senate precedent to grant a right of priority recognition to the majority leader has been repeatedly abused to block the ability of the minority to offer amendments, another of the foundational protections the minority enjoys.
However, the whirlwind of controversial actions and reactions created by the new administration's first few weeks has driven the Senate, historically the cradle of compromise, negotiation and moderation, to the very edge of unraveling in the face of partisan warfare.
George Washington, in his farewell address delivered as he left office in 1796, warned the nation in "the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party."
In words which appear hauntingly appropriate to the current political moment, he further warned, "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge ... which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism."
Washington was worried that, "The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."
Washington went on to warn that parties, in a democracy, are in "constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume."
The Senate appears to be aflame. Is this Senate capable of reducing the temperature? The battle over Judge Gorsuch's nomination may provide an answer.