Politics / December 1, 2023

Why Senate Republicans Threw an Epic Hissy Fit Yesterday

GOP Judiciary Committee members stormed out of a committee meeting after Democrats tried to hold a vote to subpoena wealthy judicial influence-buyers.

Elie Mystal
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup hearing on Thursday, November 30, 2023.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee markup hearing on Thursday, November 30, 2023. ((Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to move forward with subpoenas for wealthy judicial influence-buyers, like Harland Crow and Leonard Leo. The vote was 11-0. That’s because, by the time the vote was called, the Republican members had all walked out of the hearing in a performative huff. The walkout came after they spent nearly two hours acting like ill-behaved chimpanzees, figuratively throwing their own feces at the committee and its chairman, Senator Dick Durbin.

I’m not invoking the chimps to be rude; that’s simply a nod to the way the Republicans themselves might describe their attempt to obstruct the subpoenas. A few weeks ago, the ranking Republican member on the committee, Senator Lindsey Graham, promised a “shit show” should Democrats try to subpoena their donors. It turns out that every Republican on the committee was willing to show their whole entire ass on C-SPAN in order to protect Crow and Leo from public scrutiny.

Procedurally, the promised festivities began to take shape a couple of weeks ago when Republicans began proposing what would amount to over 170 amendments to the subpoenas. None of them were offered in good faith. Republicans were simply trying to use procedural tricks to make the committee’s work grind to a halt.

Thursday, Durbin and the Democrats had their own procedural games to play. The meeting on Thursday started with what was supposed to be the confirmation of a couple of Biden appointments, with the idea being that the committee would only later get to the subpoenas. But Republicans decided to start their objections early by slamming some of the proposed judges. So Democrats invoked a rule to cut off debate.

That’s when Republicans decided to throw a temper tantrum. The rule Durbin used was something that Senator Chuck Grassley has invoked in the past, when Republicans were in the majority, to cut off debate from Democrats who opposed, for instance, elevating alleged attempted rapists to the Supreme Court. Republicans didn’t like this particular taste of their own medicine, prompting Senator John Kennedy to ask, incredulously, why Democrats can violate normal procedure just because Republicans did it first.

That’s about when the shouting started. Senator John Cornyn threatened, “You understand, what goes around comes around”—because, I assume, he was unable to process that what the Democrats were doing was the coming around part of what Republicans had started. Ted Cruz also stood up and shouted and carried on for five minutes about something. I can’t precisely tell you what he said, because I mute Ted Cruz after 30 seconds, as is my right under the Eighth Amendment.

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Senator Tom Cotton was, unintentionally, the funniest Republican having a total meltdown. He started yelling like Kevin Bacon at the end of Animal House. He shouted: “You’re going to have a lot of consequences if you go down this road.… Listen to me, I’ve cautioned a lot of you!” Then, in response to Senator Marsha Blackburn’s claiming that Durbin was telling her to “shut up” (he wasn’t), Cotton did some masterful projection. He said, “I guess Sen. Durbin is not going to let women speak either. I thought that was sacrosanct in your party.”

And then, of course, there was Lindsey Graham, who whined and seethed and accused Democrats of pulling a political stunt. Graham has a habit of engaging in fits of pique in which he pretends to have acted in good faith in the past while vowing that he will act only in bad faith going forward. It’s a very strange thing to promise to be a jerk when everybody already knows you’re a jerk. Nonetheless, Graham returned to his signature well. He said, “I have tried as the ranking member, to my own detriment, to get things moving through the committee because I realize that elections matter.… Those days are over.… To my friends on the other side, you’ve made a terrible decision today.”

Oh no! Whatever will the Democrats do, now that they’ve lost comity with Lindsey Graham?

After every Republican got their turn to mug for the cameras, they left the hearing room. Graham stayed behind to offer some additional procedural objections but, after those objections were ignored, he too left the room.

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The point of the walkout, I believe, was to cause more procedural mayhem. After the 11-0 vote, Senators Cruz and Mike Lee claimed that the subpoena was invalid because the committee lacked a quorum when the vote was taken and because, thanks to the Republican histrionics, the vote took place just after the two-hour mark and Republicans claimed to invoke the “two-hour rule.” I’m not a Senate parliamentarian or an expert on the arcane minutiae of how this antidemocratic institution avoids doing the work of the American people, so I cannot fully assess their claims. I think they’re wrong, because there was a quorum at the start of the meeting, and I know from judicial confirmation hearings that merely walking out of the room does not stop the committee from doing business. But who knows? If there is any possible way for Republicans to shield Crow and Leo, they will take it.

This is the point that was kind of lost as Republicans carried on like toddlers who needed a bottle and a woobie. All of these hysterics were deployed to stop the Senate Judiciary committee from talking to wealthy Republicans who have been funding the trips and lifestyles of conservative justices on the Supreme Court. This is all happening because Republicans are terrified of the committee’s putting Crow and Leo under oath and asking them questions.

Prior to the hearing, I thought that subpoenaing Crow and Leo was kind of a giant waste of time. I already know what these men do, and how they’ve shaped the Supreme Court, and I know it’s going to take an aggressive court-expansion plan and decades of reversals to undo the harm they’ve caused. Hauling them in front of the judiciary committee to talk about how they’ve won didn’t feel particularly worth it.

The Republican meltdown makes me wonder if there really is something more there. The Republicans are so desperate to keep these men from testifying under oath, I’m suddenly interested in what they might say, under pain of perjury. The Republicans doth protest too much for their testimony to be perfunctory.

So… watch this space? The next flash point, absent further procedural tricks, is when we see whether Crow and Leo comply with the subpoenas once they’re issued. They’ve already turned down polite requests to testify. I’d say subpoenas have more juice, but we already know that Republicans are comfortable ignoring congressional subpoenas and then waiting for Congress to issue a criminal referral and then waiting for Merrick Garland to do something about it. Leo has already promised to not comply with the subpoena, and who is going to make him? A bunch of judges and justices he handpicked and placed on the bench? Who knows how much longer this actually drags out?

But, if they ever do testify, I’ll watch. I still don’t think they’ll say anything of import, but watching Graham scream-cry about it is good TV.

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Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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