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Senate Republicans just made a desperate move to avoid disaster in the Kavanaugh hearing

If you know anything about the Senate -- and the men and women who populate it -- it's that they like to tal...

Posted: Sep 26, 2018 3:42 PM
Updated: Sep 26, 2018 3:42 PM

If you know anything about the Senate -- and the men and women who populate it -- it's that they like to talk. To debate, to question, to soliloquize. After all, the Senate isn't known as the world's greatest deliberative body for nothing.

Which is what makes the announcement Tuesday night by Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, all the more stunning. Grassley confirmed what had been rumored for days -- that Rachel Mitchell, a deputy county attorney in Maricopa (Arizona) County, was coming on as outside counsel and would handle the bulk of questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers.

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"I promised Dr. Ford that I would do everything in my power to avoid a repeat of the 'circus' atmosphere in the hearing room that we saw the week of September 4," Grassley said in announcing Mitchell's hire. "I've taken this additional step to have questions asked by expert staff counsel to establish the most fair and respectful treatment of the witnesses possible."

So, the expectation is that Mitchell will handle the questioning of both Kavanaugh and Ford for all 11 Republicans on the Judiciary committee. (Any of the GOP senators on the panel could decide to do their own questioning; it's not clear that any will.) On the Democratic side, the 10 members of the panel will do their own questioning of the witnesses.

What could lead nearly a dozen Republican senators (including noted talkers like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee) to give up a privilege -- asking questions of witnesses in a VERY high profile setting -- they clearly cherish? Fear, mostly.

The 11 Republicans on the Judiciary committee are all men. Since it became clear that Ford, who alleges that Kavanaugh laid on top of her and tried to pull off her bathing suit in high school, would come to Washington to testify, Republican elected officials and party strategists have been apoplectic about the appearance of a group of men asking hard and personal questions of her.

The specter of Anita Hill loomed large. Her testimony in 1991 regarding accusations she made about inappropriate sexual advances made by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas has become a master class in mansplaining and shaming. Inappropriate comments and questions by the likes of late Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) and Howell Heflin (D-Alabama) have become legend in the political world -- living, breathing examples of what to never, ever do in similar circumstances. So lasting has the damage from the treatment of Hill been that Joe Biden, who served as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas hearings, has repeatedly apologized of late for not reining in some of the over-the-top questions asked by his colleagues.

(Biden is looking at running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and knows that with the #MeToo movement in the culture, he could not simply ignore the role he played in the Hill hearings.)

Every one of the 11 Republican senators on the current Judiciary Committee are deathly afraid of becoming the next Specter or Heflin -- a man who looks either condescending, clueless or both when talking to a woman about her own story of experiencing sexual misconduct. The party, writ large, has massive concerns that even a single moment in which one of their senators looks to be out of touch or bullying could trigger even larger problems for Republicans at the ballot box in 41 days time. Less than 3 in 10 women said they approved of the job President Donald Trump was doing in the latest CNN-SSRS poll, and the party is looking at a major gender gap on the generic congressional ballot.

"Somebody will do something that you guys will run 24/7," Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R), who is not on the Judiciary committee, acknowledged to reporters on Tuesday.

And, judging from some of the comments made by, in particular, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), over the past 48 hours, that seems like a very legitimate concern for Republicans. "Well it's amazing to me that these allegations come out of nowhere at the last minute and that they weren't brought up earlier in this process," Hatch said earlier this week. "And it's not untypical for our friends on the other side to pull that kind of crap." Uh....

The truth is that Republicans on the judiciary committee were in a lose-lose situation here. Let their members ask questions of Ford and run the very real risk that some one of them might, well, step in it badly. Take the route they did by bringing in a woman to ask questions of Ford and Kavanaugh and look like they are so worried about screwing up that they are ceding their senatorial privilege of asking questions of a person who is on the verge of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

The calculation made by Grassley and the other GOP members of the judiciary committee is that allowing Mitchell to ask the bulk (or maybe all) of the questions is the lesser of the two evils. Sure, Democrats will criticize them for abdicating their responsibilities at such a critical juncture. But, that's nothing when compared to the political fallout from even a single one of the 11 saying something to Ford that is deemed to be offensive, bullying or inappropriate. None of those 11 Republican senators wanted to take a risk like that, and so they brought on Mitchell.

That decision speaks to the incredibly fraught moment in which Republicans find themselves. A hugely high profile hearing on Thursday centered on a sexual assault allegation against Trump's pick for the Supreme Court. Amid the massive cultural shifts occasioned by the #MeToo movement. And with a midterm election, which has at least the potential to be a total disaster for congressional Republicans, looming just more than a month away.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And that's exactly what this move by Grassley is.

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